Speaking at council meetings can be a powerful way to affect change in your city. It provides the opportunity to share knowledge about how decisions will impact your community, advocate for equitable policies, and help local leaders apply an intersectional feminist lens to motions and reports. For many people, it’s one of the only times they come face-to-face with elected officials.
The current process is inaccessible to many, so city staff have suggested changes to the way the public can engage at their meetings. The report “Amendments to the Procedure By-law No. 12577" contains staff suggestions that council will be considering today.
Every municipality in BC has a procedural bylaw that lays out how council meetings should work and how the public can engage in them. Councils occasionally review and update these bylaws.
A recent update on the accessibility strategy recommended an amendment to Vancouver’s procedural bylaw to allow more speaking time for people with disabilities who face barriers to speaking. Alongside these changes, staff have also presented options for other amendments to “improve overall meeting efficiency” in response to questions and comments from council members.
We agree with city staff about many of the challenges the current engagement process poses. The lack of consistency in speaking times makes it difficult for many to engage and often leads to meetings that run over time, affecting city staff, city councillors, and the public alike.
Our recommendations to make the process more accessible are as follows.
1. Work with disability advocates on implementing the amendment for increased speaking time for people with disabilities who face barriers.
We strongly support amendments that make civic processes more accessible. It’s great to see a change that would enable more people to share their perspectives with council. We urge Vancouver City Council to engage with disability advocates to understand how constituents could best access this increase without pressure to disclose their disability publicly. Working with people with lived and living experience will ensure this change benefits those who need it.
2. Maintain the five-minute speaking time, as reducing the allotted time will increase barriers to speaking at council meetings.
Currently, constituents have 5 minutes to present their thoughts, concerns, and experiences with Vancouver City Council when they sign up for a slot to speak. This amendment would cut that time down to 3 minutes, a 40% reduction. We believe that reducing the allotted time will increase barriers to speaking at council meetings.
Public speaking is already a barrier people face to civic engagement. Decreasing the amount of time to do so would only further entrench this barrier. Reducing speaking time will only benefit those already comfortable in this setting––people with more experience in colonial government systems, more formal education, wealthier individuals, and those with more public speaking experience, which tends to be men.
Having only three minutes could negatively impact individuals who experience anxiety with public speaking, who speak English as a second/third language, or who don't already know the language of city systems.
Three minutes does not allow enough time to share context about your lived experience that may give colour to how council decisions affect you. Nor is it enough time for experts to share the nuances of their knowledge (especially if not included in initial consultations).
Not only would this change impact individual speakers, but it could impact the quality of dialogue overall as people are forced to revert to the most concise (but not necessarily wholistic) soundbites.
This change would be a net loss for equitable public participation and is not an appropriate place to find efficiencies.
3. In lieu of reducing speaker time, eliminate councillor question time.
In the current process, councillors have up to three minutes to ask questions to clarify perspectives following an allotted speaking time. This portion of the meeting often draws out the council agenda and makes speaking times highly unpredictable.
One of the biggest barriers to speaking that we hear is the uncertainty of when your number will be called, especially for people with multiple jobs, unpredictable schedules, care work, or who otherwise don't have the luxury of time. Eliminating this question-asking portion would make it easier to predict timing.
In addition, being asked questions can be intimidating for a new speaker and might dissuade some from speaking, especially when council questions have in the past been used to undermine a speaker's perspective. Eliminating councillor questions would make speaking more approachable for some.
The way we engage with local government systems can be challenging to navigate. These procedures aren’t set in stone. They were established by people in government, have been changed over time, and can continue to evolve. This means we have the ability to make them work better for people whose voices have often been excluded from civic engagement.
We strongly urge City Council to consider our recommendations to increase the participation of those who experience barriers to attending and speaking at council meetings.