So you want to follow a city council meeting, but you don't know all the rules and procedures? We have you covered.
Tuning in to City Council for the first time—or even watching in person? You may feel lost and confused. Once you understand how council procedure works [PDF], you may still feel lost and confused, but at least you’ll know what’s going on.
Meetings open with “O Canada,” a moment of silence for people who have passed away, and (introduced this term) an acknowledgement that the meeting is taking place in the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of the New Credit.1
Pro tips for anyone attending in person:
- The national anthem switches to French halfway through.
- The moment of silence is immediately afterwards, so don’t sit down right away.
Council & Committees
First, a brief explanation of how the politician side of city government is structured. There are so many things that council has to vote on, ranging from billion-dollar transit plans to some guy’s tree removal permit, that it’s impossible for every councillor to follow every single issue.2 So each councillor also sits on a few agencies, boards, and committees, which meet every month. Each committee covers a particular topic: Parks & Environment, Public Works, etc. There are also community councils, which are for local issues like development applications and street re-namings. There are four, for Etobicoke and York, North York, Scarborough, and “old” Toronto (which includes East York).
At committee, councillors consider items in depth, hear from experts and members of the public (called deputations), and then vote to recommend what City Council should do. Because only a few councillors make up each committee, they don’t have the final say on most items. Motions, along with their recommendations, then go to council meetings, where councillors debate and vote on all the items that each committee dealt with since the last council meeting (usually monthly). Then the cycle starts all over again.
The Order Paper
The council meeting agenda can be very long—it’s usually more than a hundred items. However, council doesn’t debate every item. At the beginning of the meeting, councillors have the opportunity to “hold” items for debate. If an item isn’t held, the committee’s recommendations are adopted automatically and unanimously, without discussion. Dozens of items, usually routine matters like tree removal or parking pad permits, are passed in this way without being debated.
Most items are held because they are significant in some way, and it’s important for councillors to consider it on the public record. However, it is also common for a councillor to hold a seemingly minor item (such as a routine request to send a city lawyer to an Ontario Municipal Board [OMB] hearing). Sometimes the councillor who held the item might do so because they want to ask city staff more questions so they understand it better. Other times, a councillor may hold an item as a matter of strategy—he or she would like to hold an item so another councillor does not get control of the item. It may be a strategy to bargain with the councillor whose ward it pertains to on another matter. Or the councillor may just want to make a grandstanding speech about trees or the OMB. Or they know it’s going to pass anyway, but they want to be on the record as voting against it.
The Speaker goes through the agenda page by page and ask councillors whether there is anything on the page they wish to hold. Councillors can also ask for time-sensitive items to be moved around or scheduled, sometimes to ensure that particular city staff can be there to answer questions, or that a concerned citizens’ group can be in attendance. This process takes anywhere from one to two hours and eats up most of the time before the lunch break on the first day. For most items, nothing particularly important happens, although there is usually entertaining banter.3
However, on some specific items the order paper can have very important strategic implications. For example, during the annual budget debate, councillors who support an austerity approach might want to debate property taxes before they debate the city services they fund, which would constrain council’s means to pay for those services.
One of the mayor’s privileges is getting to hold one or two big-ticket “key items” from the agenda. That means they get discussed first.
Going Through the Motions
Council can often be hard to follow, but just remember that there’s a standard routine for every item.
- Questions of staff: Councillors ask questions and city staff are there to provide their professional, independent, and non-political opinion. If it is a contentious item, there is often quite a bit of rhetorical game-playing as councillors try to box staff into giving them the answers they want. Sometimes staff have to be diplomatic about giving advice that politicians may not want to hear; the ghost of fired TTC general manager Gary Webster looms large.
- Motions and speeches: Councillors speak to the item, and propose various courses of action. They might suggest going with staff’s or the committee’s recommendations; to make amendments (changes) to them; sending it back to staff for further study; or to do something else entirely, like deferring the item, or “receiving” it for information, which often means ignoring it.
They can ask a councillor questions about a motion or amendment he or she put forward, although the questions must be relevant to the motion at hand (otherwise they can be ruled out of order). Councillors can also just make speeches for or against a motion. Needless to say, this can go on for a long time.
- Voting: First, council votes on what changes, if any, to make to a motion. Then they vote on the motion itself. If it is a complex matter, there may be many motions about it, or one motion may be divided up into various parts. Sometimes councillors request a single motion with multiple parts be voted on separately (ad seriatim, as councillors who want to sound like they’re in Hogwarts will say), because they like one aspect of the motion, but want to oppose another part of it.
Often a councillor holds an item, but then changes their mind. For example, they might have wanted to ask questions of staff, but have managed to meet with them before the item comes up in the agenda. In that case, they can do a “quick release.” This sounds like some kind of sexual mishap, but it actually means that council can skip the whole questions and debate part and go straight to voting. It’s easier to do these in batches, so council votes on these items at specific times (e. g., right after the lunch break). However, if another councillor wants to hold the item, he or she can then dibs it, and the Speaker will say that it is not a quick release.
Sometimes a councillor may have tried to get an item on a committee agenda, but the chair of the committee wasn’t having it. Or it’s an urgent matter and there isn’t enough time for the proper process—for example, if a councillor wants to appeal a liquor license application that has just been filed. In these cases, a councillor can just put an item on the City Council agenda. These are called “member motions.” 4
In these cases, council has to vote to make an exception to the usual rules. (And because it requires making an exception, two-thirds of council must vote for it, not just a simple majority of half-plus-one.) If the vote fails, the motion gets sent to the appropriate committee; if the vote passes, Council can debate and vote on the motion at the same meeting.
We’ve written about these briefly in the glossary, but let’s go over them again so you don’t need to click anything.
- Points of order: Every term, one councillor is appointed to be the Speaker (this term, as last term, the Speaker is Frances Nunziata [Ward 11, York South-Weston]). Her job is to keep the meeting running smoothly and enforce the rules about procedure. If a councillor thinks the Speaker has made a mistake, he or she can call out, “Point of order,” and explain. If the Speaker disagrees with the challenge (which is normally the case), and the objecting councillor doesn’t accept the Speaker’s reasons, they can “challenge the Speaker,” and the whole council votes on whether the Speaker was right or not. Council is typically deferential to the Speaker, and so it is only on rare occasions that she will lose these votes.
- Points of privilege: These are usually raised when a councillor thinks a fellow member has been rude and ought to apologize. Unsurprisingly, this happens a lot. Like points of order, the Speaker decides whether to act on them, and if she is challenged, council can vote to back her up or not.
- Quorum calls: According to the rules, you need a minimum of 23 members of council (half-plus-one, including the mayor) to keep the meeting going. If it looks like too many people have drifted away, the Speaker can “call attendance,” so to speak. We’ve suggested for years that the city clerk keep a team of trained border collies to enforce timeliness, but they haven’t gotten back to us yet.
- Recess: Are you sensing a sort of grade-school theme here? Recesses are mostly for lunch (12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m.) or when council breaks for the day (usually at 8 p.m., resuming at 9:30 a. m. the next day). The Speaker can also call a recess if everyone is angry and yelling and needs a time out. Sadly, the Speaker cannot call for naps.
- Scrums: This isn’t an official part of procedure. A scrum is a sort of spontaneous press conference when a councillor goes and talks to the media during the meeting. (Have you ever thrown fish food into a koi pond? It looks like that.) There are usually scrums after an important motion has passed. Sometimes this necessitates a brief recess, or just the Speaker yelling at the media to keep it down. Among councillors, a handful frequently cause these media disruptions; Giorgio Mammoliti’s (Ward 7, York West) square head just fits too perfectly into that little box on CP24.
At the end of the meeting, a councillor will “introduce the confirming bill,” which basically means that everything council decided takes effect. This is also when council can vote to excuse an absent member. (It’s important to do that, because if a councillor misses too many meetings, they can lose their seat.) Generally, councillors only vote “no” to these if they feel especially spiteful.
Congratulations, you survived City Council! If you’ve been there for the whole thing, it’s probably been, like, three to four days, and you’ve been living on coffee, doughnuts, and pub food, and you really need to do laundry and see your family. Take a rest—you’ve earned it.
- The Mississaugas are an Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) people whose ancestors originated on the north shore of Lake Huron and travelled to southwestern Ontario in the 17th century. In 1847, facing increased pressure from European colonization, they ceded their land to the British government for what was undoubtedly an unfairly low price, and relocated to a settlement on land held by Six Nations, part of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy. ↩
- Obviously, I hold myself to a higher standard. ↩
- However, for the best-quality banter, you’ve got to wait till the third day when everyone is tired and feeling silly. That’s prime banter conditions. ↩
- Is it just me or does “member motion” also sound like a funny sex thing?…I’ll shut up now. ↩