NANAIMO — If Nanaimo residents want to ask a question of their elected officials at the end of a public meeting they'll now require the approval of City staff.
On Monday night, the city clerk announced a new protocol for question period between citizens and councillors. Questions must now be submitted in writing and approved by staff before they can be asked.
Dermod Travis, executive director of non-profit political watchdog IntegrityBC, said it's "irregular and inappropriate" for questions in a council setting to be vetted by staff.
He said it's not uncommon for councils to have sign up lists where people list a general topic. "But there's no requirement that the individual has to have the question pre-approved by staff or anyone else. That's what local democracy is about."
The City said the move is intended to improve the efficiency of meetings, as well as limit "statements, debate and inappropriateness" which stray from agenda items. If a question is not approved, people can appeal to council to overrule staff and allow it.
Councillors weren't consulted on the changes and the public was afforded no opportunity to offer comment before a trial of the new system began. Several councillors noted staff were within their right to institute the change.
Coun. Bill Yoachim told NanaimoNewsNOW he had "mixed reviews" for the new protocol and while he wasn't sold on it, it's a starting point to a better meeting.
"It is people's democratic right to go up and ask elected officials questions that pertain to the subjects," Yoachim said. "I'm for making question period as accessible and convenient for the people to voice their questions."
Coun. Diane Brennan said she is pleased with parts of the protocol imploring people to avoid making long statements without asking a question. However she said the public would likely have a "really dim view" of staff screening their questions.
"I think there will be worry or suspicion their questions are being vetted for more (if) they're on topic on the agenda. Instead, are these going to be uncomfortable questions for council to answer, are they making it difficult for staff?" Brennan said.
Brennan said it is up to the chair of the meeting — mayor Bill McKay or the acting mayor — to keep people on agenda and put an end to inappropriate comments. However, chief administrative officer Tracy Samra said "over the last couple of years I think we've seen that some assistance would be helpful for the chair."
Councillors Gord Fuller and Bill Bestwick voiced support for the changes, noting improvements to efficiency and decorum.
Coun. Jim Kipp spoke strongly in support of the move, citing a need for "a council to protect itself" from attacks he felt often took the place of legitimate questions.
"You try and corner us and then expect us to be civil. It's a funny thing question period," Kipp said. "I'm glad this is coming forward so question period doesn't become a political stance. A way for someone to get on TV before the next election."
Yoachim said he didn't feel a need for "a process to protect council or to alienate citizens."
Monday's question period was interrupted by an unplanned recess when Samra started arguing with a councillor and the chair. Bestwick left the room and did not return, Samra directed her staff to stand up and acting mayor Sheryl Armstrong eventually called for a brief break.
"It's unfortunate, but best practices went out the door some time ago with Nanaimo's council," Travis said.
On Twitter: @domabassi
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