Proposed changes to the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board’s meeting practices will give the public earlier access to agendas and make it easier to appear before trustees.
While the new rules may also cut individual speaking times in half, to five minutes, delegations would no longer be required to submit the content of their presentations in writing beforehand.
They could also round out their oral presentations with additional written materials.
“This is much more generous and much more immediate,” trustee Judith Bishop said of the changes, outlined at a Dec. 4 meeting of the board’s governance subcommittee.
“It’s actually got more flexibility for the public, so it has to be much easier for the public.”
Current rules only see agendas posted on the board’s website the Friday afternoon before Monday meetings, making it impossible for members of the public to speak on any of the topics because they must give 10 days’ advance notice in writing to do so.
Under the changes, agendas would now be posted five days in advance and requests to appear before trustees would be accepted up to two days before the meeting.
An existing limit of three delegations per meeting would remain, but those denied the chance to speak or unable to attend could submit written comments for inclusion in trustees’ agenda package.
The proposed changes are part of a broad review of governing practices approved by trustees in February in hopes of avoiding a repeat of controversies over decisions made behind closed doors, like one to exclude Westmount from a high school closure review.
Consultant Susan Hallett, the governance expert hired to guide the review, is recommending meeting bylaws include three categories of matters voted on in private sessions.
The first are those never made public for legal reasons, like student expulsion hearings or personnel matters. Public minutes would simply provide a generic description of the matter dealt with, but not the details or decision.
The second covers decisions that must be made public but aren’t be harmed by a short delay in full disclosure, like the hiring of a new education director. Trustees might initially only report that they’d made a decision, but withhold the person’s name to allow unsuccessful candidates to be notified.
In the third category are decisions that must be made public immediately following a closed session, like the sale of a school or board property.
Hallett said only the decisions – and not what individual trustees said or how they voted in private – should be disclosed when ratified in public session.
“What transpired in private is kept in private,” she said. “The discussion, who moved what, the staff report that might have been attached to it that you based your decision on, that all stays private. It’s just the decision that the public needs to know about.”
Other rules changes recommended by Hallett include giving trustees more leeway to add items and individual resolutions, known as notices of motion, to the agenda.
To help cut down on often-marathon meetings, regular monitoring reports, like the latest enrolment data, would be included in the agenda package for information and only be discussed if a majority of trustees wished to do so.
Trustees would also only be able to speak once on the same issue and for up to five minutes. There are presently no limits at the committee level and guidelines at board meetings are routinely flouted.
The proposed changes will get one final review by the governance committee before being presented at a public information session sometime in January.
“I think this totally enhances where we were,” committee chair Jessica Brennan said.