Council procedure is confusing yet important. Here's how it works.
What happens inside Council Chamber: decoding the mysteries within. Photo by Garry Choo from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
The inner circle of Toronto’s Council Chamber contains forty-five seats, each with a nameplate for our mayor and forty-four councillors. Then there are a few extra seats for City staff, political staff, and the City clerk and her team. Overlooking all these seats are rows and rows of curved benches—for us. The room is designed to hold about 250 citizens, the eyes and ears of Toronto’s voters. After all, if a tree fell at City Hall, but there was no one there to hear it….
Often, these seats are empty. Most voters have never been inside City Hall, never sat in the Council Chamber, and (I would guess) are not aware of the council’s meeting schedule. After all, the City makes no effort to encourage attendance. I’ve seen ads in this town for concerts, comedy acts, musicals, sports, and philosophy courses, but I’ve never seen an ad promoting a council meeting.
It’s a shame, because the meetings are actually quite fascinating to watch. The proceedings are unpredictable—sometimes heated, quite educational, often amusing—and the outcome of each meeting affects our day-to-day lives in numerous ways.
Of course, not everyone has the ability to take a day off work to attend a meeting. Luckily, the council sessions are available as a live video stream, or through Twitter updates, or using the city’s fantastic online resources (including their “Meeting Monitor”). I prefer attending in person: it’s the only way to catch all the action (much of which happens off-camera!). Either way, I would encourage people to plug in.
Granted, promoting the meeting schedule might not be enough—perhaps voters need a crash course in how those meetings actually work. There are a lot of rules, and the proceedings can be quite confusing to anyone who doesn’t know the basics. Imagine attending a baseball game without knowing the rules: it would all seem quite random and chaotic without a general understanding of innings, strikes, balls, walks, fouls, bunts, stealing, etc.
So before you try to watch, take a look over these rules. Here are the bases, batting order, and foul lines of Toronto city council:
Pre-Game Warm-UpThe first thing you need to know is that council isn’t debating items from scratch, or creating policy from a blank slate. In most cases, city council is debating reports that were written by experts on City staff, have already gone through a process of public consultation, and have been debated (and often amended) by a smaller committee of councillors, such as the Executive Committee (Team Ford), a Standing Committee (issue-focused subgroup, such as Public Works and Infrastructure), or a community council (geographically focused subgroup, such as Scarborough community council). Once a proposal has passed through all these hurdles, it finally makes it to city council. If you want to get involved as an advocate for an issue, you’ll have to plug into the committee meetings: at these, every citizen has the right to speak for five minutes on any item. At city council, there are no public deputations. Just watching.
The StadiumCity Hall is at Queen and Bay, easily accessible by TTC (the closest subway is Osgoode Station). There is a nice cafeteria on the main floor, and a library branch (which happens to be the only location in the entire building with Wi-Fi). The Council Chamber is open to the public, and is accessible by elevator from the first floor. There are rows of seats for the public, and a large JumboTron screen for your viewing convenience. The media sit above the crowd, overlooking the whole situation. Sadly, no food is allowed in the chamber (not a great rule, in terms of encouraging public attendance).
The RulebookCity council is guided by the Toronto Municipal Code council procedures bylaw [PDF]. It starts by describing a few basic principles—the first three serve as a great summary of what it’s all about:
- The majority of members have the right to decide.
- The minority of members have the right to be heard.
- All members have the right to information to help make decisions.
These basic principles are followed by 134 pages of detailed rules and procedures. I’ll try to summarize the key parts here, to save you the hassle of reading the whole thing.
The FansWe, the city-loving geeks of Toronto, are the fans, and we have a Charter of Rights. The procedural bylaw has an entire section dedicated to public participation, in fact. It begins with: “Principles of public participation: The public has the right to participate in the decision-making process by writing to council or committee, by submitting a public petition, or by making a public presentation, as the procedures bylaw describes.”
The Umpire and ManagerIt’s debatable who’s really in charge at the meeting. Technically, it’s the Speaker, who acts as the meeting’s ‘chair.’ He or she runs the meeting, and makes the final decision in the case of a dispute about, or a challenge to, the procedures in play. But it’s the City clerk who really knows the rules, and is the most respected voice in the room. The clerk and her team sit in the centre of the room and watch over every moment of the meeting, ensuring that proper procedures are being followed for each motion. So you can think of the Speaker as more of a team manager, and the clerk as the umpire.
The GameMost of what you’ll see at city council is a series of short speeches and attempts to get motions passed. A motion often requires amendments in order to get a majority of the room to support it. Councillors are allowed to speak for five minutes on each item, but they are frequently granted an ‘extension’ and speak longer. With forty-four councillors, this can take some time if they all speak. In addition, each councillor can also ask questions of City staff and can also ask questions of any other councillor who moves an amendment. On a controversial topic (especially if the TV cameras are rolling), this process can take many hours for a single item.
The Line-Up (Batting Order)
If you sneak a look over any councillor’s shoulder, you’ll see their information panel, which displays the councillors who want to speak to an item up for debate. Photo courtesy Josh Colle.
Council meetings begin with the approval of the agenda, which is mainly comprised of all the items that are ‘held.’ A councillor holds an item if he or she wants to see that issue debated on the council floor. (If a recommendation coming from a committee is not ‘held,’ it is automatically adopted.)
Then, for each item (and each motion, and each amendment), the Speaker maintains a list of those who want to speak or ask questions. The list is conveniently displayed on fifty-plus screens—there’s one in front of each councillor and staffperson. For some reason, they don’t show the list on the large public JumboTron, but you can easily see the monitors if you lean forward.
Keeping an eye on these screens is a must, if you want to get an idea of whether the current item will take five minutes or five hours.
(Note: the batting order can be interrupted momentarily, if a councillor rises on a “Point of Order” or a “Point of Privilege”—essentially declaring that a rule has been broken, or that the procedure has somehow been compromised. Once the Speaker has made a ruling on this, the meeting continues.)
The PlaysOnce an item or a motion is on the floor, there are many things that can happen to it. The most common action is for an item to be “adopted,” which simply means that a majority of councillors support the idea. An item can also be defeated (if a majority of councillors do not support it). Then there are a variety of other creative options that can delay an item, or make it disappear in a less straightforward way. A “referral” means that the item has been sent back to a committee, or to staff, for further examination. A “deferral” means that council has decided to deal with the issue at a future meeting. An item can also be “received,” which is essentially a black hole. Lastly, there is “take note and file,” a rarely used motion that also seems to be a black hole.
The ScorecardAfter each vote, the results will be flashed on the large screen—but only for a few seconds. (This is a great opportunity to refine your skills of photographic memory.)
For detailed information about motions, amendments, votes, minutes, etc., you can check out the City’s great online tools.
So, those are the basic rules of the game. Hope to see you in the clamshell soon!
Just for fun, I’ll try to really drag out this baseball metaphor. In order to make it work (in a multi-partisan, collaborative way), you’ll have to imagine a casual baseball game, where the goal isn’t to “win” (i.e. get more points than the opposing team), but to get as many combined points as possible. In this game, every ‘run’ is a motion passed, and the more motions passed, the better.
Players • Councillors
Manager • Speaker/Chair
Umpire • Clerk
Captain • Mayor
Line-up • Agenda
Batter’s Box • Speaker’s list
Pinch Hitter • Point of Privilege
Scorecard • Minutes
World Series • Annual budget
Exhibition Game • Public consultation meeting
Stadium • City Hall
Field • Council Chamber
Dugout • Members’ lounge
Doctor • Spin doctor
Snack Bar • “Café on the Square”
Draft • Election
Mid-Season Trade • Bi-election
Minor League • School Board
The ball • An idea
The pitch • A motion
Curveball • An amendment to the motion
Pitcher • Mover
Foul Ball • Motion is ruled out of order
Hit • Motion is held
Walk • Referral
Ball • Deferral
Strikeout • Motion fails
Run • Motion passes
Home run • Motion passes unanimously
RBI • Motion passes due to friendly amendment
Sacrifice Fly • Vote-trading
Heckling • Heckling
This article is cross-posted to Mez Dispenser
We originally wrote that councillors can “speak to every single amendment that is put forward.” Technically, what they can do is ask questions of the mover of the amendment, or address the amendment in their general remarks on the motion being amended; they cannot get additional speaking time to separately address the amendment.