Hamilton City Council Chamber Credit: Joey Coleman / The Public Record

Hamilton’s city councillors are notoriously neglectful of their duty to show up to work on time, and remain until the job is done.

Countless meetings have been cancelled this term of office. The City’s physician recruitment program has effectively stalled as that committee did not make quorum for two years.

The inability of this council to show up to meetings and remain during them is a symptom of the underlying problems which manifest themselves in dysfunctional inefficient meetings.

It is costly in both trackable costs including staff wages, consultant and lawyer fees, and stalled projects.

Thousands of Hamiltonians are without a family doctor. Council is not doing its little part in recruiting them, for two years, the City’s Physician Recruitment Committee failed to make quorum for two years between 2019 and 2021.

Hamilton city councillors could not be bothered to bother to show up at City Hall for a year, and then could not be bothered to open their laptops working from home during the pandemic.

As then Hamilton Chamber of Commerce CEO Keanin Loomis said at the May 2021 no quorum meeting of the Physician Recruitment Committee “we need to make some decisions here and it is hard to do so when we are unable to achieve quorum.”

[The crisis in family medicine is the result of systemic problems which can only truly be solved by Queen’s Park. The need for the City to incentivize the recruitment of family doctors is arguably yet another example of provincial downloading.]

Under the Municipal Act, quorum is “a majority of members“, 50 percent plus one. In Hamilton, nine of sixteen members of Council at their full meetings.

Quorum is lower for smaller committees.

Hamilton’s City Clerk recently redefined the word “majority” to include a tie as a “majority”, lowering the threshold for quorum.

The Municipal Act does not define “majority” because it is a common word with a commonly understood meaning. Hamilton is once again the exception to the rule.

With dozens of cancelled meetings, and hundreds of meetings beginning late during this term of Council, it is little wonder some people are proposing to tie councillors’ pay to council attendance.

This is not a solution.

It is responding to a symptom. It does not address the underlying disease.

It is impractical.

The job of city councillor does not lend itself to easy performance measures.

The Practical Challenge of Connecting Pay to Meeting Attendance

How does one define attendance for the purposes of councillor pay? By the number of meetings attended, by the number of missings missed, by the number of votes cast, by the number of votes missed?

Every few years somebody creates a bubble chart or similar visualization noting that councillors vote together on a large (usually 90 percent or more) number of votes. Let’s take a recent meeting as an example, June 22, 2022.

There were 32 votes during this meeting. 28 of those votes were “unanimous”. Many of these can be described as “housekeeping” votes. Many of the votes occurred in short succession. In theory, a councillor could participate in hours of discussion and debate, step out to use the washroom (or some other reasons), and miss a group of quick succession votes. Meanwhile, another councillor could miss nearly all of the meeting, log in briefly for votes, and the paper record makes it appear they participated more than the other councillor.

Assigning weight to the importance of votes is extremely subjective.

Let’s use “showing up on time” as our metric. It can be consistently and easily measured at every meeting.

What happens if a councillor merely opens their laptop for a few moments at the beginning of the meeting and does not attend the remainder?

Clearly, we cannot use this measure on its own.

Do we create some sort of formula based upon all of the above? Who will enforce the formula, who will consider requests for exemption, and determine the validity of reasons such as “city business”?

Do we involve the Integrity Commissioner at their hourly billing rate?

To what purpose?

Effective representation is the true issue to be addressed.

We need to elect better city councillors. Good people who consistently show up to work.

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Last edited: July 13, 2022
Author: Joey Coleman
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One reply on “Coleman’s Notes: On Council Attendance, Standards and Fines for Missing Meetings”

  1. Joey, I can’t count the number of times you have said in the last six months that while doing your ‘quorum watch,’ you have pointed out that the council didn’t have one, or someone left, and they lost the quorum. The lack of quorum has to stop- and why couldn’t it be managed? In most employment settings, there are reasons why someone doesn’t show up for work- and yes, I know the meetings are just ONE small part of a councillor’s job. We know that people get ill, there is a family emergency, vacation or possibly another meeting ran longer than expected- all these things would be acceptable reasons for not attending. Just like the vast majority of us who works for someone else, it’s spelled out what is and isn’t a valid reason for not attending or showing up for work. You know, probably better than many of us, the effect this has on the council’s ability to do their job.
    If someone logs in for 10 minutes- then logs off after their attendance is noted, then they also should have something deducted (an hourly rate?) unless there is a valid reason.
    There is another option- The council has mandated that all city hall staff is to show up for work, rather than doing stuff virtually- well- why is it okay to make the staff show up, but they can sit at home? The original purpose of doing the meeting virtually was a temporary measure during the pandemic. Unless the public health experts declare otherwise- there is no reason why councillors can’t hop in their cars, or better yet, hop on the HSR and go to the meetings in person.

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