Vancouver City Council recently made changes to its Procedure By-law, which lays out how council meetings work and how the public can engage in them.
Vancouver Council meetings are known for being lengthy and challenging to participate in. In response to requests from councillors, city staff brought forward suggestions to “improve overall meeting efficiency.”
While we agreed that some updates would benefit public participation, we expressed concerns that other changes would decrease meeting accessibility for people who already experience barriers to civic engagement. Read WTC’s recommendations to improve meeting efficiency without sacrificing critical opportunities for public engagement.
Let’s dive into the key changes that will affect how you engage with city council meetings.
Accommodations for people with disabilities.
The change: The meeting chair will now have the discretion to allow additional time or other accommodations for speakers if there are accessibility barriers to speaking.
We strongly support amendments that make civic processes more accessible and commend council on a change that enables more people to share their perspectives. We encourage councillors and staff to work with disability justice advocates as they roll out this change to ensure it meets the needs of people with disabilities.
Staff clarified that there will be an opportunity to select that you require accommodation when you submit a request to speak to avoid pressure to publicly disclose a disability. In response to a question from Councillor Carr, staff also clarified that residents can request to stay anonymous in their remarks to council, if they fear retaliation for speaking up publicly.
Less time to speak to council.
The change: Rather than five minutes to present your thoughts, concerns, and experiences to council, you will now have three minutes. This change applies to meetings about motions and reports but won’t apply to public hearings.
Speaking to council is an opportunity to share your input and for our leaders to learn how their decisions impact us. Council just slashed your opportunity to address them by 40%.
Community members already found the five-minute limit to be a barrier. We are concerned that this reduced time for speakers will negatively impact those who already face barriers to civic engagement, such as individuals who experience public speaking anxiety, those who speak English as a second/third language, or folks unfamiliar with the language of city systems. A reduction in speaking time only benefits those with more experience in colonial government systems, more formal education, wealthier individuals, and those with more public speaking experience, which tends to be men.
Three minutes is not enough time to provide important context and nuances from our lived experience or to share expertise that councillors may not be aware of. It’s council’s job to listen and respond to residents. Time dedicated to public engagement isn’t an appropriate place to find efficiencies. We hope that council will enhance and prioritize other opportunities for input from equity-deserving communities.
Earlier start time for public hearings.
The change: Rather than beginning at 6:00 pm, public hearings will now start five hours earlier at 1:00 pm.
Staff originally proposed an earlier start time of 3:00 pm, but council took this one step further and moved the start time to early afternoon. This is concerning for those of us without flexible work schedules as the new time falls in the middle of many people’s work and school days.
The day you sign up will now be the day you speak.
The change: Previously, signing up to speak to council on a Tuesday would typically result in an actual speaking slot on Wednesday. Confusing, right? Now the process will be more straightforward.
Motions and reports scheduled for Tuesday’s council meetings were usually “referred” to Standing Committee meetings the next day to hear from speakers. This often caused confusion about when to sign up and when you’d be speaking to council.
Council passed an amendment to address that confusion. Now agenda items that allow speakers will be automatically scheduled for Wednesday. Speakers will sign up to speak for and be heard on Wednesdays. We applaud this move to make engaging with our elected leaders easier.
Earlier speaker sign-up deadline.
The change: The deadline used to be 8:30 am the day of the meeting. Now speakers will have until 5:00 pm the day before the meeting to sign up to speak.
We expressed concerns to council that this new time could increase barriers for the public to participate at council meetings. People often hear about motions that impact them at evening organizing meetings or on the evening news, which prompts them to speak to Council. According to city staff, 20% of speakers sign up after 5:00 pm. Council’s decision to change this deadline impacts one in five speakers’ opportunities to participate in meetings.
Eliminating questions to speakers.
The change: Previously, councillors had up to three minutes to ask speakers clarifying questions. Now they won’t ask you questions at all.
We see pros and cons to this change. On one hand, the opportunity to ask questions to speakers contributed to dialogue with subject matter experts, which provided information for councillors' decisions to be evidence-based.
However, allotting up to three minutes per speaker for questions from each councillor added significant unpredictability to meetings. This made it difficult to know when your turn to speak would be. We have repeatedly heard that this was a major barrier, especially for people with multiple jobs, unpredictable schedules, care work, or who otherwise don't have the luxury of time. Despite its potential downsides, we hope that eliminating this question-asking portion will make it easier for residents to follow and predict the timing of council meetings.