The 10 members of St. John’s city council are mulling over adding an eleventh seat to council — specifically reserved for someone under the age of 18.
At Wednesday’s committee of the whole meeting, Deputy Mayor Sheilagh O’Leary revived discussion about an amendment adopted by council in 2014 that would see an appointed youth sitting at the council table.
The council at the time added a provision to discuss policy in public meetings and for a youth member to sit as a de facto eleventh member of council at the horseshoe for public meetings. The youth member would not have access to private meetings and wouldn’t have a vote in any matter.
“They wouldn’t have a vote, but they would have a voice,” said O’Leary.
Ultimately, a space was created for a teenager on council, but no one was ever appointed.
On Wednesday, council decided to send the idea back to city staff and to the existing youth advisory committee to get their input before going ahead.
O’Leary says demographic representation is still something that needs to be tackled, and this provision within the City of St. John’s Act could be one more way to do it.
“There was an opportunity here within the act to engage a youth at the council table and I think that’s absolutely fantastic. It’s crucial that we do that,” said O’Leary.
“Historically, here at city council we’ve seen people who were oftentimes retirees. The demographic did not represent our full citizenship. I think this amendment to the act enables us to engage youth in a more concrete way.”
Other councillors at the meeting were much more lukewarm to the idea. Concerns were raised over how the unelected member would be appointed, whether or not this is a practice taken in other jurisdictions (research by The Telegram so far indicates it isn’t) and even the logistics of adding another seat to the public council chambers.
O’Leary acknowledges the concerns about the idea are real, but says previous efforts by city hall to engage with young people were underwhelming.
“One thing about the youth advisory committee, when I was on it, it was a glorified pizza party. It has evolved since that time and we have great representatives, but there wasn’t much of a mandate to make recommendations,” said O’Leary.
“I do think there’s a lot more research to happen, I just don’t want it to be dead in the water,” she said.
Mayor Danny Breen is one of the skeptics of the idea, though he says he sees the merits in theory. He was on council when the provision was introduced in 2014, but he says it wasn’t very well thought out.
“At the time, it was briefly discussed. It was felt that we have a youth advisory committee that was providing input to council and that would suffice. That was the end of it. There was no greater discussion beyond that,” said Breen.
“Council is considering what may be a fundamental change in how it operates by having a non-elected person sit representing a demographic — albeit not voting. That is a significant change. My responsibility is to make sure council knows all aspects of this.”
The idea will be up for discussion at a future council meeting.