Calgary group examines council, laments lack of debate

A new report from a Calgary research group touting an “in-depth” look at Hamilton councillors says there is little debate at city hall, almost everything gets approved and meetings are short.

New report concludes council has widespread agreement on votes with little debate

A new report from the Calgary-based Manning Centre for Research says that motions at city council tend to pass without much debate – but the report does not examine the meetings where debates most often take place. (Terry Asma/CBC)

A new report from a Calgary research group touting an "in-depth" look at Hamilton councillors says there is little debate at city hall, and that record keeping on private meetings is shoddy.

But the Manning Centre report – which was authored by a group that has never attended a local council meeting – analyzed only council meetings, and did not look at committee meetings like planning or public works where, in Hamilton, most debates take place.

As a result, the study concludes that:

"Hamilton's city council approves virtually everything," said Jeromy Farkas, a Research Fellow with the Manning Centre. "Unlike Toronto, where one in ten motions fail, we see very little debate play out. It could be that Hamilton's city council decides most matters behind closed doors, or that they all just think alike."

Farkas told CBC News that the project is meant to act as an "accountability measure" to help people understand how government is working for them.

"It's really difficult for the public to track what's going on and hold their government accountable," Farkas said. "We're trying to make it easier."

But now, the question is whether it achieves that goal while leaving out a significant part of Hamilton's political process.

Report didn't want to 'cherry pick' results, author says

The report analyzed council meetings from last term, from Dec. 1, 2010 to Sept. 24, 2014. Among the report's findings were:

  • Only former mayor Bob Bratina attended all meetings for the entire term.
  • Former Coun. Brian McHattie had the lowest attendance record (84.5 per cent) and Coun. Robert Pasuta had the most time away (over 20 hours).
  • Council spent 5.8 per cent of its time in private, in camera meetings – which was similar to an analysis of Toronto, but nearly double Ottawa.
  • Coun. Sam Merulla was the most likely to get council's support, and former Coun. Brad Clark was the least likely.

The report also says that Hamilton council spent 237 hours deliberating issues, which is "substantially less than the 883 hours spent at Toronto council meetings." But Toronto is much bigger, and has a vastly larger council – 44 wards to Hamilton's 15.

Farkas said the report did not analyze local committee meetings like planning or public works where in Hamilton debate is more likely to take place because the group didn't want to "cherry pick" results. He also said it would take "thousands of more hours" to do that.

"It's a matter of resources," he said.

Report suggests 'strong support' for Bratina on council

The report also contained a number of statements that appear to be at odds with Hamilton's political climate.

The press release that accompanied the report said that analysis showed a "core group of 15 council members control the agenda 80 per cent of the time" – yet Hamilton only has 15 council members. Farkas could not account for that other 20 per cent, and said it may have been an issue with the press release.

The report also states that, "Notably, Mayor Bratina never dissented against the majority during this term, suggesting either strong support for the mayor by council, strong support of council by the mayor, or potentially both."

Yet there is plenty on the public record to show that Bratina's time at council was far from harmonious. In 2012, council voted to censure Bratina over his assertion that staff gave his chief of staff a 30-per cent raise. The city's integrity commissioner investigated him after tense words with city manager Chris Murray, and then councillor Brian McHattie had said that Bratina didn't accurately represent council's preference for LRT to the province.

Data allows for a 'different perspective'

Farkas said that he "couldn't really speak to that," adding that while that could be public perception, the "data could say otherwise."

"The data allows a bit of a different perspective," he said.

Farkas said his group found irregularities about in camera meetings through council minutes, regarding what they were about and how long they lasted.

He also advocated for more comprehensive open data, which would make analysis and understanding of civic issues easier for the general public, he said.

"If Hamilton council moved more towards electronic voting it would be a lot easier to analyze."


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