Your Glossary of City Council Terms
Have you ever watched City Council and didn't quite understand what they were talking about? This article is your friend.
Between the order paper, challenges to the chair, and whatever Anthony Perruzza (Ward 8, York West) is trying to say, City Hall jargon can be confusing. In order to follow along with what’s being happening at council—who is doing what and why, and who is trolling who—it’s helpful to know what some of those terms and ideas mean. Here’s a handy guide of common terms to help any council watcher. It’s also a work in progress; please comment with any suggestions and we’ll do our best to add to the article.
- A proposed change to a motion, anything from a minor technical correction to a complete reversal of the original motion’s meaning and intent. Council votes on the proposed amendments first, and then on the item as amended or without amendments as the case may be.
Usage: “I move to add ‘and the Medical Officer of Health’ so the motion reads ‘request that the Chief Planner and the Medical Officer of Health report back to Council’.”
- To pass a motion. Most items on Council’s agenda are routine permits, planning applications, and the like, and are adopted on consent (that is automatically, without debate or amendment.)
Usage: “Last month, Council adopted a motion to ban plastic bags.”
- Call the question
- To move to end debate and just vote on the item. If Council votes yes, they then vote on the item. If not, they keep debating the item.
Usage: “I call the question.” groans from everyone who wanted to give their speech
- Challenge the Speaker
- To take issue with a decision of the Speaker’s. (The current Speaker is Frances Nunziata, who represents Ward 11, York South-Weston.) Council then votes on whether to uphold the Speaker’s ruling or not.
Usage: “Frances, read the by-law again. That motion is out of order.” “Are you challenging the Speaker?”
- The flying saucer-like Council chamber.
Usage: “It’s standing room only in the clamshell.”
- A staff member who prepares the agenda, manages documents, gives Council advice about the rules, takes minutes, etc. A full council meeting requires several clerks working together.
Usage: “I’ve asked the clerk, and she agrees that this motion is in order.”
- A group of Council members (and sometimes members of the public) who meet separately to debate items before they go to Council. For example, the Public Works & Infrastructure Committee deals with things like road repair; recreational user fees are the domain of the Community Development & Recreation Committee; the Budget Committee is self-explanatory. The Mayor chooses the chair (head) of each committee. Every Council member has to sit on at least one standing committee. Halfway through the term, everyone can switch committees and new chairs are appointed.
Usage: “Tomorrow, the Economic Development Committee will debate a music industry partnership with Austin, Texas.”
- Community Council
- A committee that deals with items specific to one part of Toronto—usually permits, planning applications and the like. There are four Community Councils, for Etobicoke/York, North York, Scarborough, and Toronto/East York respectively. Each Community Council is made up of the councillors from that particular area.
Usage: “Councillor Sarah Doucetter (Ward 13, Parkdale-High Park) is the lone progressive on Etobicoke-York Community Council.”
- City of Toronto Act. In a nutshell: the 2006 provincial law that lays out the powers and limits of Toronto’s city government. It says what taxes we can implement, how much say we get in planning, the accountability and transparency measures we must have, and more. Periodically, the City’s powers under CoTA are reviewed, and adding new ones is considered.
Usage: “A sales tax sounds like a great idea, but we’d have to ask the province to amend CoTA first.”
- A short speech or presentation made by a member of the public to a committee. Must be related to a specific item—although that doesn’t stop some people from digressions. “Depute”: to give a deputation. “Deputant”: someone who gives a deputation.
Usage: “We’ve heard many deputations on how important childcare is.”
- Where members of the public sit in the Council chamber.
Usage: “I’m hearing a lot of chatter from the gallery. Please keep it down or I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
- Hold for debate
- Often simply hold. To call dibs on an item so it will not be passed automatically, but discussed and voted on by Council. A member of Council may hold an item because it is too important to be adopted without debate; because they want to make a speech about it for their constituents; because they want to annoy the colleague whose ward it pertains to, and so on. See also release.
Usage: “Councillor Rob Ford (Ward 2, Etobicoke North) held the item just so he could rail against driveway by-laws.”
- In camera
- When the meeting is closed to the public because confidential matters are being discussed — for example, employee relations, real estate deals, or ongoing court cases. Also called closed session. From Latin camera (room, chamber). (The photographic camera gets its name from the camera obscura — “dark room”.)
Usage: “We’re going in camera at 6 p. m.” to discuss a potential court settlement.
- In/out of order
- In accordance with/not in accordance with the rules. By “the rules” we mean the City Council procedures by-law. Most of the things in this glossary are defined in the procedures by-law but it’s 127 pages long and super dry.
Usage: “You’re out of order! This whole damn chamber’s out of order!”
- Key item/matter
- The Mayor gets to pick an item from the agenda that they consider especially important, and it gets debated first.
Usage: “The fate of the East Gardiner is expected to be the Mayor’s key item at the meeting.”
- A proposed decision or action relating to a particular agenda item. For example, if the item is about transit options, a councillor might put forward a motion to build a subway instead of light rail. See also amendment.
Usage: “I have an urgent motion to introduce.”
- Order paper
- The final form of the agenda, hammered out at the beginning of each meeting. This is when Council decides which items will be debated, and whether any will be scheduled for particular times (timed items). Committee chairs provide updates on what their committee has accomplished, and councillors introduce petitions from their constituents. Council usually starts its first day at 10:00 a.m., and the order paper should be completed by 11:00–11:30 a.m., depending on the number and complexity of the items.
Usage: “According to the order paper, the food truck debate will be the first thing tomorrow afternoon.”
- Point of order
- Councillors can raise this at any time to draw the Speaker’s attention to a breach of the meeting rules.
Usage: “Point of order, Madam Speaker — we should be voting on all these items separately.”
- Point of personal privilege
- Councillors can raise this at any time when they feel someone’s rights, dignity or comfort is being infringed.
Usage: “Madam Speaker, on a point of personal privilege, my colleague here should retract and apologize for his rude comments about the professionalism of City staff.”
- The minimum number of councillors necessary to have a meeting — according to the rules, a simple majority (23 for council meetings), and they all have to be in their seats instead of wandering around. If it looks like more than half the councillors are absent, there is a quorum call where they take attendance.
Usage: “There’s only 20 people here. We can’t vote on this until we have quorum.”
- A Council member can move receipt/put forward a motion to receive an item, which just means “okay, we saw this, but we don’t want to do anything about it.”
Usage: “Receiving the Ombudsman’s report would effectively bury the matter.”
- A short break, or to take a short break.
Usage: “Council has recessed for lunch.” “I’m calling a five-minute recess so you can all calm down.”
- Recorded vote
- When councillors vote by pressing buttons, thus recording it electronically, rather than with a show of hands. Any councillor can demand any vote be recorded. A headache for councillors, but a boon for data nerds.
Usage: “I didn’t see who voted No on that motion; it wasn’t a recorded vote.”
- When a member of Council who has held an item decides they don’t want to debate it after all. They can announce that they’re releasing the item when it comes up on the agenda, or at specific times (e. g. after the lunch break or at the end of the day) when Council takes care of routine business like that. See also hold.
Usage: “I’d like to release CD1.1, as I talked to City staff over lunch and my questions about the item have been answered.”
- A councillor, elected by Council at the first meeting, whose job is to run the meetings and make sure the rules are being followed. They are referred to as Madam, Mr., or perhaps Mx. Speaker.
Usage: “The Speaker must always be impartial.”
- The length of time that councillors and the Mayor are elected to serve. A term is four years long. The current term is 2014-2018.
Usage: “Licensing for tattoo parlours was introduced last term.”
- Two-thirds vote
- Council can vote to make a one-time exception to the rules. However, this vote must pass with a two-thirds majority (30 councillors voting yes) instead of a simple majority (23 councillors voting yes). Some things you need a two-thirds vote for: extending the meeting, amending the order paper, waiving referral, calling the question. Some things you can’t have a two-thirds vote on: making an exception to the two-thirds rule, you smartass; how many people are needed for quorum; the rules about whether a meeting must be open or closed to the public.
Usage: “Half of the councillors want to finish the meeting tonight.” “That’s not enough, the motion needs two-thirds of council.”
- Waive referral
- To make an exception to the rule that motions must be passed by a committee before being put on the Council agenda. When a councillor introduces a new motion they just prepared, Council must first vote to waive referral. If the vote carries, the motion is added to the agenda. If not, the councillor must get it through committee first.
Usage: “The vote to waive referral carries.”
A version of this article first appeared on nevillepark.ca