Stop public questions in Petrolia urges town consultant

Heather Wright Photo

Petrolia’s Integrity Commissioner is urging council to dump the practice of questions from the public during council meetings.

Nigel Bellchamber told council it can lead to councillors being “attacked” and “blindsided.”

Bellchamber came to Petrolia’s council special meeting Monday saying through his work as the Integrity Commissioner – he’s currently investigating a complaint about Councillor Grant Purdy – he’s noticed a number of things about the way council operates. That includes the practice of allowing anyone to come to the podium during a meeting to ask a question of council.

Since the November resignation of former CAO Manny Baron, there have been pointed questions from a Concerned Citizen’s Group about how the town does business. Developers have also voiced their concerns about Mayor John McCharles’ work as a realtor and the benefits they say that gives his clients. During a number of meetings, there were heated questions and at one point McCharles threatened to clear the room.

Bellchamber told council allowing spontaneous questions is an unusual practice. He says he’s only aware of one municipality allowing the practice – Mississauga. It allows questions but only before the council meeting.

In Lambton County, at least one other council allows public questions without prior notice – Brooke-Alvinston.

Bellchamber told council people should only be allowed to ask questions as a delegation. They would have to ask to be included on the agenda and he suggested they should submit their presentation in advance.

“Don’t allow yourselves to be waht I would call blindsided and have a grenade lobbed at you,” he told council.

Bellchamber noted if council chooses to continue the practice, the chair or any member of council can call out presenters for inappropriate behavior and the mayor could have them removed from the chmabers.

Councillor Grant Purdy disagreed with the idea saying it was an “affront to democracy” to take the question period away.

Hugh Deighton, one of the members of the Concerned Citizens Group, says he has no problem showing respect to council or being a delegation to council but he would rather not submit his questions in advance. “I don’t agree with having to put things on a piece of paper ahead of time because they have a chance to look at it and make up their story ahead of time.”

Bellchamber says the change he’s proposing would not stop anyone from coming to council. “It is a more orderly and effective form of local government” he says, adding the Supreme Court said the public has a right to observe government in open session but not necessarily to speak to government during the meetings.

Council is preparing to act on the recommendation Monday. Councillor Mary Pat Gleeson has filed a notice of motion to get rid of the question period and limit the number of people to appear before council each week as delegations to three. The recommendation will be presented Monday but will be discussed at the next council meeting March 12.