Efforts to keep public question period under control at Brownsburg-Chatham council meetings are not popular with some residents, but the municipality insists it is not discouraging open debate and discussion.
At the January council meeting, a new policy was approved that retains the two question periods at each council meeting but places limits on how questions are asked.
At the February 5 council meeting, some citizens accused the municipality of trying to curtail free speech by limiting questions only to items that are on the meeting agenda.
Georges Dinel, who served as mayor from 2009 to 2013, said the new policy restricts freedom of expression, and said that goes against liberal-democratic values.
He added that there should be the freedom to openly discuss all municipal issues in a public assembly.
Two former Brownsburg-Chatham councillors who routinely approach the podium during question period expressed their displeasure as well.
Martin Charron, who now refers to himself on Facebook as the “citoyen impliqué dans la communauté” or “citizen involved in the community” said from the podium that Mayor Catherine Trickey needed to respect democracy and citizens.
Kevin Bush also questioned the legitimacy of the new rules limiting questions to agenda items.
At a February 18 press conference, held at the town hall, Trickey stated that oral questions about all municipal operations and policies are permitted during the question periods, but in order to maintain better decorum, clarity, transparency, and accountability, oral questions that are not related to an item on the meeting agenda must be accompanied with a written version of the same question.
An answer to those non-agenda questions accompanied by a written version, may be deferred to another meeting so that the meeting can stay on-agenda.
Under the new policy, Trickey reads answers to submitted, written questions before the first question period at each council meeting.
Trickey noted that Brownsburg-Chatham, with its two question periods at each council meeting, is already more democratic than many municipalities in Québec where there is only one question period.
The municipality will make forms available for residents to write down their questions about non-agenda items. The questions can still be asked at the microphone, or the forms can be submitted to the clerk, before or after council meetings.
The mayor explained that the format is designed to ensure there is dialogue with a greater number of citizens.
Director-General Hervé Rivet said the new policy complies with provincial laws on how municipal council meetings are to function. He said that Pierre-Alain Bouchard, the new municipal clerk, will be responsible for overseeing the written questions once he begins work on March 18.
Trickey said there are no plans to ban people from attending council meetings.
Rivet acknowledged there is a populist sentiment among some residents of Brownsburg-Chatham but said all suggestions and questions from citizens are an important part of democracy.