If the upcoming public participation meeting on fluoride becomes as heated as debate over its format, there could be fireworks inside Centennial Hall on Jan. 25.
During the council meeting on Jan. 10, councillors were passing the minutes of the most recent Civic Works Committee, when Ward 4 Councillor Stephen Orser brought the subject of the public participation meeting to the floor.
Orser, who stated he is taking an anti-fluoridation position on the subject, put forward a motion to allow more time to speakers than the five minutes chairman and Ward 12 Councillor Harold Usher has previously said he was going to allow. Orser wanted to extend that time for individuals, giving experts up to 20 minutes, and also opening up the meeting to questions.
Although council would eventually vote down Orser’s amendments, he first stated his position by suggesting five minutes would be insufficient time given the complexity of the subject.
“My concern is apparently there are going to be experts brought in from Calgary that are against the fluoridation of water. Five minutes of time is not appropriate,” Orser said. “I would also like to have the ability as a member of council, at this public participation meeting, to question experts while it is fresh, not after the whole thing is over.”
Ward 10 Councillor Paul Van Meerbergen, who presided over the meeting after Mayor Joe Fontana left, cut off Orser from further discussion on the fluoride issue.
“We are getting into the whole fluoride debate now,” Van Meerbergen said. “I think we can all appreciate why you might want to hear more from experts, but to get into he debate now is not in order.”
Ward 8 Councillor Paul Hubert said he was sympathetic about Usher’s position in dealing with what will likely be a large crowd. However, he was far more concerned with just who, besides London residents, may be showing up to speak at the meeting.
“In a public participation meeting, who is the public? When I hear about flying people in from Calgary . . . that is not the public I expect to be speaking,” Hubert said. “When does the public become a lobbyist? Let’s have a public participation meeting, but I want to hear from the public in London.”
City clerk Cathy Saunders clarified the situation by saying a member of the public is essentially anyone who comes to the meeting, regardless of where they might live. Saunders also pointed out it is up to the chair of a committee to make the rules on how a meeting is to be run — although the rest of the committee could still challenge the decision.
Although the procedural question was answered, Hubert also spoke as to whether it was appropriate for a member of council to be stating their position before the public participation meeting even took place.
“Councillor Orser made the comment that he has made a decision. We have to be — it is our obligation to be — open to persuasion,” Hubert said. “I am just reminding council we have to be open minded about these things.”
Orser took offence to the question, seeing it as a suggestion he was working with a lobby group. In fact, he became so upset, Van Meerbergen had to repeatedly tell him he was out of order.
Still upset, Orser said he was simply trying to find out as much information as possible, something he suggested wasn’t the case with all of his fellow councillors.
“I was speaking honestly to council that I have concerns with what I have been finding out,” Orser said. “And I will be honest, a number of members around this horseshoe have been ducking the information that has been coming forward. Not everybody, but a few.”
After getting back control of the meeting, Van Meerbergen asked city solicitor James Barber to clarify what the responsibilities of councillors are heading into a public meeting.
“Council, in relation to its bylaws, is exercising a legislative function. When it holds a public participation meeting . . . it is entitled to get whatever information comes forward at that meeting,” Barber said. “The general law with respect to council is that members cannot be biased. They are biased when they indicate, that with respect to a particular matter, they are not amendable to persuading.”
Prior to the vote being held on Orser’s proposed amendments, Usher said he wanted to limit speakers to five minutes to prevent the meeting — which is expected to draw a large crowd — from running any longer than necessary.
In addition, Usher also said a public participation meeting is not a debate, but rather a venue for the public to make presentations and provide information.
“On occasions like this, we will have a multitude of people. We cannot afford to have everybody asking questions or we will never get finished,” Usher said. “There have to be rules and I, as chair, set the rules for my public participation meeting.”