On Tuesday night, Sept. 20, 2022, members of Kingston City Council voted to approve some substantial changes to its Planning Committee procedures, all in an attempt to cut down on the length of indvidual Planning meetings, many of which stretch into the early hours of the morning. The change will see Planning Committee meetings moved from Thursday to Wednesday nights, with a firm cut-off of 10:00 p.m., and with any outstanding matters set to be taken up the following evening.
This past May, City Council directed City staff to identify ways to streamline the Planning Committee process, including “reworking the schedule, meeting time, procedures, and duration,” while also looking to other comparable municipalities for guidance.
In a report presented to Council ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, staff recommended a number of changes based on feedback received from the public and information gathered from comparable municipalities. A move to the second and fourth Wednesday of each month is required in order to allow the meetings to be carried over to Thursday nights, when necessary, instead of to Fridays. Currently, the Committee meets on the first and third Thursday of the month, except for during the summer when it meets once a month. Shifting to the second and fourth Wednesdays will also prevent City Council meetings (which take place on the first and third Tuesdays) and Planning Committee meetings from occurring on back-to-back nights, which can be difficult for members who serve on both bodies.
Staff also called for the introduction of a registration process for members of the public who wish to speak at the Committee’s meetings. “This will allow members of the public to be aware of where they stand in the speakers’ queue and approximately when they will be able to speak at the meeting,” the report noted. Despite the institution of a registration process, there will still be an opportunity for non-registered members of the public to address the Committee: “There will be no requirement to register to speak; however, the benefit of registration will be knowing where in the order and the approximate time that a member of the public will be speaking.”
The report referenced a public consultations process, which was carried out for three weeks earlier this summer, with 94 participants taking part in the online survey. Of the respondents, 54 per cent indicated they had previously participated in Planning Committee meetings; 76 per cent of that group stated they attended meetings as a member of the public.
The survey was meant to gauge the public’s interest in potential changes to the Committee, including early start and end times, frequent breaks, and pre-registration for speakers. The majority of respondents agreed to most changes, except for 5:00 p.m. start times, which were opposed by 43 per cent and favoured by 39 per cent.
During Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, council members had the opportunity to address the staff recommendations, with Trillium District Councillor and current Planning Committee Chair Robert Kiley speaking out in favour of the changes.
“I want to thank staff for looking for these modifications and particularly using the [comparison] to other municipalities. Hopefully, this will make, not a lighter workload… but a more sustainable one for all involved, including staff,” he said.
Mayor Bryan Paterson said the “status quo” is not working, as he remarked on the length of current Planning Committee meetings. “Having been a former Chair of Planning Committee myself, I think that the root issue is this: it is not in the public interest for people to have to sit through five or six hours for a chance to speak or a chance to be able to hear the deliberations of the committee… I have great sympathy for everyone around this table and, having been through it, it is exhausting.”
Paterson noted that future Councils would have the opportunity to further reform the Planning Committee’s procedures if the changes fail to bring about the desired results. “It’s always easy to criticize a change and find reasons why it won’t work. I would propose that if what we have now is not working, why don’t we try something else and see how it goes? We can always change it back if it’s not working,” he said.
Not all councillors were in favour of the staff recommendations, with Collins-Bayridge District’s Lisa Osanic expressing concern over the number of Planning Committee meetings the changes could result in.
“This could be, instead of two nights per month for one committee, four nights per month… and that’s just too much,” Osanic said. “That means that the councillor would have to make sure that there’s not another committee meeting the next night on the Thursday. And we do have a lot of committees that meet on Thursday nights.”
Williamsville District Councillor Jim Neill pointed to something that was not included in the staff recomendations: the amount of time allowed to applicants to speak: “With all due respect for the current Chair… if we have eight members of the public that speak to [an application], the proponent [of that application] is given the courtesy of having equal time. Do they need equal time? I don’t think so… They need the time to present, but they don’t need equal time [to] all of the public.”
Peter Stroud, Councillor for Sydenham District, echoed Neill’s comments, arguing that the recommendations fail to address the root cause of the problem.
“These suggestions are very well-intentioned, and it’s great brainstorming to see some of these ideas, but… unless you further restrict everybody’s time at the meeting, it’s just an exercise in futility,” he stated.
Ultimately, despite some vocal criticism from members of Council, the recommendations were passed by a vote of 10-3, with Stroud, Osanic, and Neill opposed. The changes are set to come into effect in January 2023, which will allow staff additional time to set the new meeting schedule before it is presented to the new 2022-2026 Council later this year.