Is there a 5-2 split on council?
Councillors note diversity a good thing, voting takes a wide variety of forms
Friday, Apr 04, 2014 04:15 pm
It’s a theme showing up in letters to the editor, online chatter, website comments and offhand comments at the chamber gala.
As council settles into its term, there’s a perception that they are deeply divided, with 5-2 votes – and Coun. Cam MacKay and Coun. Sheena Hughes in the minority – often.
But the numbers don’t necessarily agree. And where there are differences of opinion, is that really a problem?
The vast number of votes so far this term in regular council meetings and standing committee on finance sessions are unanimous. Discounting process motions like adoptions of agendas, in camera-related motions and budget meeting motions, of 196 votes so far this term, 127 of them have been unanimous.
Of the 69 votes that saw councillors disagree, 24 times the vote has indeed seen Hughes and MacKay on their own in the minority.
But the other two-thirds of the votes see a variety of council members voting in a different way. A 5-2 split is the most common, occurring 33 times so far this term. One councillor against the rest – a 6-1 split – is nearly as common, happening 30 times. The much closer 4-3 split is drastically less common, occurring just six times so far.
Nearly every councillor has been on the minority side of that 6-1 split. And Hughes and MacKay aren’t the only ones who often buck the majority – Mayor Nolan Crouse has voted against the majority of council 19 times.
MacKay has voted against the majority 34 times, Hughes 42 times, Coun. Wes Brodhead four times, Coun. Cathy Heron five times, Coun. Tim Osborne four times and Coun. Gilles Prefontaine five times.
“When I teach seminars, I normally say that the best council is the council that’s totally unpredictable,” said George Cuff. Cuff is a consultant who often works with municipal councils and has written handbooks for them, in addition to his own time as an elected representative. He was brought on to give St. Albert’s city council an orientation after the election.
Most councils are elected on a non-partisan basis, he said, so are on an independent platform and basis.
Differences of opinion are not a problem as long as the voting doesn’t become a personal vendetta.
“The fact that councillors are absolutely opposed on some issues, I am not stressed by that, I think that’s fine,” Cuff said, noting that gives voice to a broader cross-section of views.
“There’s quite frankly nothing harmful about that. What’s harmful is when you start ganging up, you start leaving in the corridors separately, you start having lunch separately, that kind of stuff is not healthy,” Cuff said. “At the end of the day you need to see each other as colleagues, not in this camp or that.”
If it does become unhealthy, council needs to get together for a healthy discussion, he said.
“I’m not trying to promote groupthink … it’s a question of how do you handle your diversity,” Cuff said.
St. Albert’s councillors and mayors acknowledge there is a diversity of views – but almost all of them pointed out that is a good thing.
“I would be very concerned if it was 100 per cent unanimous,” said Prefontaine.
Every councillor acknowledged the theory of a split or divide in council is one they’ve heard about in the community, though not all said it was a concern of people so much as an observation in passing.
“Sometimes it’s said in jest and sometimes there’s a little bit of an edge to it,” said Brodhead. “My response to it is that we have a council that people believe in what they believe, and that makes it a strong council.”
Coun. Sheena Hughes, who finds herself in the minority more often than anyone else on council, says she makes her votes based on what her conscious tells her the residents would want and not on how anyone else on council is voting.
“I’m not going to vote with someone else,” she said. “Each issue needs to be argued on its own merits.”
Hughes notes when she brings a motion to the floor, she’s never certain how the vote will turn out.
When she’s at events with her colleagues, Hughes says they are still friendly and respectful to each other despite occasionally differing opinions, and many of her colleagues agree that there are cordial relationships amongst council.
Hughes said she occasionally will ask Heron to weigh in on the wording of her motions, noting she’s the rookie councillor and Heron is more experienced. The two sit next to each other at the council table and can frequently be spotted consulting – even though they often find themselves on opposite sides of the vote.
“We try to be friendly yet we generally vote on opposite ends,” said Heron.
Heron acknowledged there is a split in voting and ultimate vision for the city, but added “diversity’s good.”
“I’m starting to see a little bit of a shift in open-mindedness on both sides,” she said. “It’s getting a little less predictable.”
Heron might have a point – in the last two council meetings in March, there were only two 5-2 votes, and one of those splits saw Heron and Brodhead in the minority rather than Hughes and MacKay.
Heron said she does hear about the perception of a split from residents.
“I’m hearing it in the community myself. People are forming their own camps in the community which is unfortunate,” she said. “I’m hoping the community will come round as well. If council can come round then the community should be able to do so as well. I don’t want this to be a four-year (campaign).”
Prefontaine and Brodhead both noted some of the perception of the 5-2 split might come from the fact that MacKay and Hughes were both endorsed by the St. Albert Think Tank during the campaign.
“You had a very vocal, a very visible campaign put together by an anonymous third party,” Prefontaine said. But as he gets to know his colleagues, he knows each person has their own separate passions and opinions.
“We may not always and we probably won’t always see those two individuals together,” he said. “I think the big part is I don’t necessarily believe there is a 5-2 split.”
“Coun. Hughes and Coun. MacKay happen to be on that particular side and the rest of us, whether we wanted to be or not, were put on the other side,” Brodhead said. But he noted he just recently voted with MacKay and Hughes on the latter’s suggestion council give notice to terminate the school site allocation agreement and renegotiate.
“Do we have differences of opinion? Sure. But nobody’s unprofessional,” he said.
MacKay said a perceived split isn’t something a lot of people in the community think about much, though he said it has come out in passing.
“I don’t think about it that much. I just kind of go to council, do my thing, and go home,” he said.
Due to work, council and other commitments MacKay says he doesn’t spend much time outside of chambers with his colleagues.
“I don’t spend a lot of time outside of council with anyone on council,” he said.
Osborne suggested those who think every vote splits a particular way might try tuning in.
“I would encourage them to watch the meetings just to see that it’s not 5-2 on every vote,” Osborne said.
“Honestly I think the idea of a 5-2 split is a really over-simplified narrative,” Osborne said. “From my perspective I think what we have is a council that’s really representing a wide range of ideologies and that’s a good thing.”
In charge of running the meetings is the mayor, and Crouse said any perceived split is not his priority – keeping decorum in chambers is.
“We all have a particular ideology that we believe in. We all have beliefs on what’s right and what’s wrong for a community, you should never believe you’re going to have 7-0 votes,” he said.
Crouse noted he’s offered to meet with every councillor, and has done so with everyone but MacKay.
“I’m observing tremendous growth through the last four or five months,” Crouse said, noting there are phases to team building.
While the mayor has previously expressed concerns about decorum in chambers, particularly the way in which staff was being questioned, he’s seen improvements.
“We’ve had several in camera discussions over it,” he said.
Many of the contested votes occur on key policy decisions, Crouse said, and that shows this council is far from dysfunctional.
“There are examples of dysfunctional councils where they do not get the agenda approved,” he said, calling the etiquette amongst council members to each other “very solid.”
Diverse votes and opinions around the council table is democracy at work, it seems.
“If we do (believe in democracy), democracy in its crudest form says four beats three,” said Cuff.