New CAO halts question period at first council meeting

“I’m quite concerned with what’s happening here,”

Princeton’s newly hired CAO made an impression at her first council meeting Monday night by bringing the open forum normally held at the close of the meeting to a quick end.

Cheryl Martens is promising a new format for questions and comments from the public at future meetings.

A handful of unhappy spectators left the chambers after Martens interrupted a dialogue between acting mayor Doug Pateman and resident Tom Guerster, while citing contravention of the town’s own procedural bylaw.

“I’m new and I know people do things differently in different places but I’m quite concerned with what’s happening here,” she said.

“This meeting has been adjourned and we should follow the policies in place.”

Several spectators made comments following Martens’ intervention.

Dawn Johnston said question periods have been common place following Princeton council meetings since the 1980’s.

“Mayor Armitage always allows for questions after a council meeting. It’s been that way for years,” added Leona Guerster, who has stated she is running for the mayor’s chair in the October municipal elections.

She suggested the mayor – who was not present at the meeting – be consulted on the issue.

“An open forum it is not,” said Martens. “He’s obligated to follow the procedural bylaw as well.”

Saying he wanted to ask a question about a letter he sent to mayor and council Jon Bartlett said Martens based her decision on “one tiny and procedural point.”

In an interview with the Spotlight Martens said the procedural bylaw clearly sets out rules for delegations to council.

The bylaw reads: “Where written application has not been received by the CAO as prescribed in section 19(1) an individual or delegation may address the meeting if approved by the unanimous vote of members present.”

The Order and Proceedings and Business section of the bylaw states: “Questions from the public during public question period must pertain to items on the agenda.”

While in past the mayor has asked for questions following the official adjournment of the council meeting, Martens said that is breach of the Local Government Act.

“You are holding a public meeting that has not been advertised and is for a select group of people. That is not fair to the rest of the community.”

At future council meetings residents who wish to speak to an agenda item can make the request to address council by putting their names on a sign in sheet before the meeting gets underway, said Martens. Under the procedural bylaw, which was passed in 2014, council can then vote to allow each individual to make a delegation.

Martens said her intent is not to shut down communication.

“I don’t want people to think that because I did this last night that there is no opportunity to address council. The whole idea of the procedural bylaw is to keep the structure of the council meeting in place.”

In addition to requesting a delegation to council citizens are encouraged to contact town managers or councillors directly if they have questions or concerns.

“There are so many ways that you can communicate with us. You don’t have to wait for a council meeting.”

Pateman declined to comment on the CAO’s move, saying he wanted to confer with Armitage before making a statement.

Councillor Jerome Tjerkstra told the Spotlight that it’s important to limit questions and input at meetings to agenda items.

“There is an approved process to ask questions about what is on the agenda at council meetings. Public is always welcome to come in to ask council or staff anything at all,” he said.

“This is not about shutting down questions from public but about following a fair procedure at council meetings. Council and staff cannot be expected to answer any and all questions unrelated to the agenda without proper preparation.”

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