Going Through the Motions

As I read the agenda for Monday’s meeting, I paused on a phrase in the partnership agreement between the Municipality and the Bay of Quinte Regional Marketing Board. Under the rules of how their Board of Directors will function, it said that the Board will:

5. Be an initiator of policy, not merely a reactor to staff initiatives.

So what does it mean to be an initiator of policy? How do we go about that in a positive and helpful way?

What’s a Motion?

Every meeting agenda is a list of items to be addressed. There’s a description of the issue, a recommendation from staff (usually with an attached report), and a motion, which is another way of saying “in light of all of this, we’ll take the following action.”

Like most things in our institutions, this process has a long lineage, and so is often difficult for people who aren’t familiar with the history of the process to understand. Here’s a quick rundown on the jargon:

Every motion has a preamble, a section where we set the stage. It’s traditionally written as a clause, or series of clauses, that starts with “whereas.” Most of them start with a Whereas clause that refers back to the provincial laws that give the municipality the legal authority to perform the actions that are the real subject of the motion, something like “Whereas the Municipal Act, 2001 gives municipalities natural persons rights, including the ability to determine x, y, or z…” It sets the stage for our ability to do the thing we want to do, and also why, with Whereas clauses outlining a current issue or crisis that demands attention, or a regular matter like “Whereas it is in the interests of the residents of Brighton to perform service x, y, or z…”

The next section is called the Resolution. After all of the “Whereas” statements, we see a big “Therefore”. We’ve set the stage, now it’s time for the show. “Be it resolved that…” is how we say that, in light of all of the Whereas clauses above, we’re going to do the following.

It’s worth noting that the language we use in legal documents is archaic, or old-timey, but that this is for a reason: that old-timey language has been used to establish so many laws over time that it’s really important that we continue to use the same type of wording so that there’s no confusion over how our laws and bylaws from today interact with others that, in some cases, are over a hundred years old. Language is always changing and growing, and as it changes it often becomes ambiguous: think about all of the different uses of “cool”, or current language trends that repurpose common words in particular contexts. Legalese avoids that kind of confusion for lawyers, politicians, clerks, and planners, by sticking with archaic language that only confuses…everyone else.

People Use Big Words They Don't Know To Sound Smarter
Legalese isn’t just about using big words to sound smart. It’s about using words that have legal precedent…I mean, that have already been proven in court and used in other laws.

So, to sum up, a motion is a statement of why we want to do something (“Whereas we have problem X”), why we’re allowed to do something (“…and Whereas we have power y”), and what we want to do (“…therefore, be it resolved that z…”).

Where Do Motions Come From?

Most motions come from Staff. Every municipal department has a Work Plan, a set of tasks they’ve generated from the Strategic Plan and the priorities of council, and in the course of that work they often need council approval for things. Motions arise from normal, everyday tasks: the Planning department receives an application for a rezoning, and at a certain point in that process they bring a motion to council to inform council of the application, and eventually, a motion to approve it (or not). Such motions come with a report and recommendation, which is often “that council receive this staff report for information purposes.” Every report comes with a pre-written motion and a recommendation that we adopt that motion.

It’s worth noting here that for council to “receive” something (a report, a delegation, a presentation) just means that we read/hear it. It requires no action from us, just an acknowledgement that we got it. If you bring an issue to council, and we end up “receiving it” rather than moving to do something about it, we’ve effectively resolved to just think about it; nothing more will happen unless there’s a new motion.

There are enough staff-written motions to keep us busy. It’s important for us to receive these motions, even the ones that we ONLY “receive”, for the sake of oversight: this is how council keeps tabs on what’s going on in the community, how staff are performing, and what issues need more attention. But when staff bring us a motion, they’ve already done enough research and applied their expertise that, far more often than not, we follow their recommendation. This isn’t a bad thing: our staff know what they’re doing, and they offer us good advice! But it does sometimes give the impression that we’re “just going through the motions” – ie., that the community is being led by staff, with a thin veneer of council oversight. This is why it’s important that, as with the BoQRMB Board, council serve as “an initiator of policy, not merely a reactor to staff initiatives.”

Notice of Motion

But councilors don’t need to wait for staff to write a motion; we can write our own! Usually councilors write motions to bring up and (hopefully) implement ideas that they campaigned on.

In order to have council debate and act on a motion, a councilor first must write a Notice of Motion. This is a way of introducing the idea, so that all councilors have a chance to put some thought into it before they have to debate it. A Notice of Motion must be submitted by the Wednesday before the next meeting, so that the Clerks can include it in the draft agenda that comes to councilors on Thursday, and the final agenda that comes out to the public on Friday. Then during the meeting on Monday, the Notice of Motion is read out. Nothing else happens with it until the following meeting, when it will be debated and an action taken.

Often, the action that ends up being taken on any given motion is “that the matter be referred to staff to deliver a report” at an upcoming meeting. Especially with a motion that originates with council, staff expect to have some research to do: how does this idea align with our current policies, programs, strategic plan, budgets, and staffing? What kind of timeline would be involved if council decides to go forward with this? What other impacts could it have? When staff bring a motion, it comes with a report and a recommendation; when councilors bring a motion, staff have to catch up on those parts.

Keeping the Motions Steady

Council, staff, and the community all benefit from a stable municipal government, so it’s important that council try to organize their agenda and telegraph any major changes they want to make. If every councilor brought a new motion every week, it could result in getting a lot of changes made quickly; it could also be absolute chaos, creating massive backlogs of work for staff and tremendous uncertainty for residents.

That’s one of the reasons why we do Strategic Planning, which will begin soon. When council sets a strategic plan, all motions will be held up to it: the staff report template includes a category in which they must indicate how a given motion relates to the strategic plan. So long as staff and council are on the same page about our general direction (as illuminated in the strategic plan) then staff should be able to anticipate the types of projects that council wants to do, and be moving toward them even without councilors writing their own motions.

Cartoon of a medieval battle in which the king stands atop a tower with his last remaining retainer, saying "what do you mean 'we never got around to developing a strategic plan'?"
Borrowed from Ken Wilson.

When councilors do write a Notice of Motion, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. I make an effort to keep in regular contact with all of my colleagues, to be open about my goals and hopes; I think we all know each others’ priorities. If I have an issue I want council to address, I don’t want them to be surprised when I bring the Notice of Motion, I want them prepared for a good discussion to happen at the following meeting. I also don’t want to rely on the kind of impression I can make in a single sitting: our usual process with staff motions includes a thorough background report and recommendation, and I want to make sure that I provide that level of explanation for my ideas too. Nobody makes good decisions if they’re put on the spot with not enough information, so any notions I bring must be thorough, aligned with the strategic plan, and telegraphed in advance.

Be it resolved that I stick to that level of planning and engagement!

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