Youth engagement on municipal councils draws criticism from MNL

James McLeod
Published on April 14, 2014

On first blush, it seems innocuous enough, but a suite of amendments to municipalities legislation is drawing a lot of fire up at Confederation Building this week.

Debate started on Bill 6 last week; the legislation would allow municipal councils to appoint non-voting youth representatives, and would let elected council members attend meetings via teleconference if they’re unable to make it to the meeting in person.

Nobody seems to object too strenuously to council members participating via Skype, but Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador (MNL) has come out forcefully against the idea of youth representatives.

“Fundamentally, we just think it’s a bad idea,” Craig Pollett, CEO of MNL said. “It’s a fundamental issue of democracy. We’re not talking about youth sitting on committees or on task forces, you’re talking about having somebody sit at the table with council in chambers, and we think that’s an important distinction.”

Pollett said it’s problematic that youth representatives wouldn’t participate in private committee meetings dealing with human resources issues and legal matters. The concern is that since they would be excluded from certain processes, they wouldn’t be full participants. He also said it puts a heavy onus on the council to figure out how to select youth representatives to be appointed to council.

Moreover, he said that having a youth representative able to speak on council doesn’t necessarily mean the council will hear a range of youth concerns. He said they’ll just get whatever matters to one young person.

“They’re really just there every second Tuesday sitting at the table with council. We’re really not sure that’s the most effective way to engage youth or show them the value of democracy,” Pollett said.

But Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Kent pointed out that municipalities won’t be forced to appoint youth representatives. If towns and cities don’t want youth on council, they can just ignore Bill 6.

And Kent agreed with Pollett that the government needs a bigger municipal youth engagement strategy, but he said youth representatives on council would still be a good step.

“I’m surprised that there’s such controversy unfolding around what is a really simple provision,” Kent told reporters outside the legislature Monday. “I’ve already talked to a number of mayors from Paradise to Happy Valley-Goose Bay who are very much in support of this legislation. It’s not the right answer for every community. There are lots of ways that communities can engage young people.”

The issue came up at St. John’s city council Monday evening, and the councillors weren’t too receptive to the idea of appointing a youth representative.

“We are certainly there to work with our youth, make sure that they are part of the process and that they do actually have a voice,” Deputy Mayor Ron Ellsworth said. “I think that’s somewhat regressive, and it’s only done as, I guess, a figurehead representation, and that’s not fair to our youth.”

Coun. Danny Breen, who ran for the PC party in a byelection last week, said the legislation wouldn’t do anything for St. John’s.

“Bill 6 may be of some use to other municipalities who have different needs or different mechanisms than we do, and it gives them the opportunity, if they so choose, to appoint a youth representative,” Breen said. “So it may have some value to some of the municipalities in the province, some of the smaller ones, but certainly I believe what we’re doing here at the city in terms of youth engagement is certainly first-rate.”

In the legislature, the Liberals have taken up the cause against Bill 6. Municipal Affairs critic Eddie Joyce said the legislation is vague and leaves room for abuse.

For example, he said the amendments don’t include term limits for youth representatives; it only says they have to be appointed before they turn 18.

Joyce said he can imagine a town appointing somebody when they were 17 and 364 days old, and then that person sitting on council as a non-voting member for years.

“Can you guarantee me it’s not? That’s why we need rules and regulations. This is why Steve Kent should’ve consulted with MNL, right from Day 1,” Joyce said. “If someone turns 18 who’s eligible to vote and eligible to run, why can’t they put their name on the ballot?”

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