Goodwill motions: when motions are not real motions.

The Sens Mile. Playoffs. Hockey things. None of which I care about too much. But PROCEDURE can really light my fire.

If you have no idea what I'm talking about, Matthew Pearson at the Citizen has all the details. The short story is Council passed a motion to put up the "Sens Mile" signs on Elgin before the playoffs start and the Sens have asked them not to. 

But ... I thought Council motions were kind of binding, or something governance something democracy something something?

I asked for clarification:

The Ottawa Citizen reports the City solicitor made the following statement regarding the "Sens Mile" motion:

"Given that this was a goodwill motion intended to support the Ottawa Senators, along with businesses on Elgin Street and across the City, both the mover and the seconder of the motion have agreed to support the request from Ottawa Senators"
 

  1. What legal basis allows for a motion of Council to be set aside outside of reconsideration at a subsequent meeting?
  2. What is the legal definition of a "goodwill motion"?
  3. Other members of council voted in support the motion. Why is their YES vote (to "immediately" install the signs) being discarded in favour of an after-meeting decision by the mover and seconder to change their minds?
  4. The "Sens Mile" motion was passed in an open-session of council, but is now being ignored, based on decision a making process that was not open to the public. How is this not a violation of the open-council requirements?

And got this response:

Attributed to Rick O'Connor City Clerk and Solicitor.

As this was a ceremonial, goodwill motion, the City has decided to abide by the Senators’ request and delay the implementation of Council’s motion, with the concurrence of the Mayor and the mover and seconder of the motion. This approach is being taken as a respectful, timely and cost effective response to the Senators request. Should there be any procedural questions arising from this delay, these would be addressed at the Council meeting on April 15, 2015.

Which leaves me with a few followup questions, but I'll let them drop for now.

  • In Mr. O'Connor's response, who is "the City"? It can't be Council because only Council speaks for Council and they passed a motion to install the signs "immediately".
  • It isn't the Mayor, or the mover or seconder of the motion, because in his statement those individuals "concur" with the City's decision.
  • Is it the City Manager? If yes, then why not just say "the City Manager has decided to abide by the Senators' request"? My guess is because that would be hella awkward because the City Manager only has one job to do: implement Council direction.

Anyway. April 15th should be interesting.

UPDATE 1:

I decided to ask a followup:

When Mr. O'Connor stated "the City" has decided to abide by the request, who is "the City"? As Council has not reversed itself, what individual(s) is Mr. O'Connor referring to when he said "the City"?

Response (this time from the media team itself):

Unfortunately this is all the information we have at this time.

UPDATE 2:

I've received a more detailed response attributable to Mr. O'Connor which includes a copy of his previous full statement, which I'll quote here in full.

[Mr. O'Connor's] statement read:  “As this was a ceremonial, goodwill motion, the City has decided to abide by the Senators’ request and delay the implementation of Council’s motion, with the concurrence of the Mayor and the mover and seconder of the motion. This approach is being taken as a respectful, timely and cost effective response to the Senators request. Should there be any procedural questions arising from this delay, these would be addressed at the Council meeting on April 15, 2015.”

What legal basis allows for a motion of Council to be set aside outside of reconsideration at a subsequent meeting?

The motion was not ‘set aside’. The decision has been made to delay the implementation of the motion. There is no ‘legal basis’ per se. As indicated in the statement above, the decision was brought forward as a practical solution to the new information provided by the Ottawa Senators, in consultation with the Mayor and with the concurrence of the mover and seconder.

What is the legal definition of a "goodwill motion"?

The description “goodwill motion” was an attempt to characterize, in plain language, the intent of the motion. There is no legal definition.

Other members of council voted in support the motion. Why is their YES vote (to "immediately" install the signs) being discarded in favour of an after-meeting decision by the mover and seconder to change their minds?

While no formal survey or votes have been taken, Members have been generally positive in their responses to the Memo that went out this morning. The alternative to this practical approach would be to hold a Special Meeting of Council (with its attendant formal requirements and costs). A majority of Council can petition to hold a Special Meeting, should they wish to do so, in accordance with Section 14(1)b. of the Procedure By-law.

The "Sens Mile" motion was passed in an open-session of council, but is now being ignored, based on decision a making process that was not open to the public. How is this not a violation of the open-council requirements?

The decision of Council is not being ignored. The implementation is delayed. 

For what it's worth I feel bad for staff, including Mr. O'Connor, as far as this entire situation has unfolded. This mess was not of their making. They have better things to do than deal with this.

A walk-on motion on an irrelevant topic (to the city, if not to Sens fans) appears with no notice. Procedural rules are waived and a motion is passed. Huzzah!

Staff followed their instructions and a photo-op is arranged for 9am the next day. A few hours after that the Senators want the City to backpedal, councillors informally agree, and staff are put in a great big bind. Do they follow Council's instructions or do they follow Council's wishes? It's governance by ouija board.

Retired councillor Peter Hume, speaking on another topic, was very blunt about this in 2013, when an error in the minutes that Council had already adopted needed to be fixed. The City Clerk put forward a subsequent motion to "fix" the "wrong" minutes (some wordplay here, because whatever minutes Council adopts are the "right" ones). Peter Hume's money quote (at 1h:03m:25s of the council video) is a simple summary:

Council speaks by motion. It doesn't speak by intent ... Council speaks by what is written on the paper. It's very clear, staff get direction by what the motion says.

Yes, new information has come up that the Senators don't want the Sens Mile signs put up. And yes, obviously we don't want to voodoo the playoff chances. But this isn't how the city is supposed to operate.

It should operate like this: Council decides things -> Staff do those things.

It shouldn't ever operate like this: Council decides things -> Stuff happens -> Staff do different things.

On a topic as trivial as hockey and Senators signs, who cares, we move on, be practical and avoid the costs of a special or emergency meeting of Council.

I just wish we treated our democratic institutions with the same reverence we assign to sports, where no cost is too great to maintain the respect of our team.

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Published:
2015-03-26 18:25

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