Inside Baseball: The Rules of Toronto City Council

(Cross-posted on Torontoist)

The inner circle of Toronto’s Council Chambers contains 45 seats, each with a nameplate for our Mayor and 44 Councillors. Then there are a few extra seats for city staff, political staff, and the City Clerk and her team.  Overlooking all these seats, are rows and rows of curved benches – for us.  The room is designed to hold about 250 citizens, the eyes and ears of Toronto’s voters.  After all, if a tree fell at City Hall, but there was no one there to hear it….

Often these seats are empty.  Most voters have never been inside City Hall, never sat in the Chamber, and I would guess that most are not aware of the Council schedule anyway.  After all, the City makes no effort to encourage attendance. I’ve seen ads in this town for concerts, comedy acts, musicals, sports, and philosophy courses.  But I’ve never seen an ad promoting a Council meeting.  It’s a shame, because the meetings are actually quite fascinating to watch.  The proceedings are unpredictable, sometimes heated, quite educational, often amusing and the the outcome of each meeting affects our day-to-day lives in numerous ways.

Of course not everyone has the ability to take a day off work to attend a meeting.  Luckily, the Council sessions are available as a live video stream, or through twitter updates, or using the city’s fantastic online resources (including their “Meeting Monitor”).  I prefer attending in person.  It’s the only way to catch all the action (much of it happens off-camera)!  But either way, I would encourage people to plug in.

That’s why I recently started a Facebook group called “We Like to Watch”.   Group members receive invites to each and every Council meeting, and they can also chat on the wall, start a discussion, etc.

Of course, promoting the  meeting schedule might not be enough.  Perhaps voters need a crash course in how those meetings actually work!  There are a lot of rules, and the proceedings would be quite confusing to anyone who didn’t know the basics.  Imagine attending a baseball game, without knowing the rules.  It would all seem quite random and chaotic without having a general understanding of innings, strikes, balls, walks, fouls, bunts, stealing, etc…

So before you try to watch, take a look over these rules.  Here are the bases, batting order and foul lines of Toronto City Council:

Pre-Game Warm Up:

The first thing you need to know is that Council isn’t debating items from scratch, or creating policy from a blank slate.  In most cases, City Council is debating reports that were written by experts on city staff and have already gone through a process of public consultation and have been debated (and often amended) by a smaller Committee of Councillors, such as the Executive Committee (team Ford), a Standing Committee (issue-focussed sub-group) or a Community Council (geographically focussed sub-group).  Once a proposal has passed through all these hurdles, it finally makes it to Council.  If you want to get involved as an advocate / activist for an issue, you’ll have to plug into these Committee meetings.  Every citizen has the right to speak for 5 minutes, on any item, at any of these meetings.  At City Council, there are no public deputations. Just watching.

The Stadium:
City Hall is at Queen and Bay, easily accessible by TTC (closest subway is Osgoode Station).  There is a nice cafeteria on the main floor, and a library branch too (which happens to be the only location in the entire building with WiFi).  The Council Chamber is open to the public and are accessible by elevator from the first floor.  There are rows of seats for the public, and a large jumbotron screen for your viewing convenience.  The media sit above the crowd, overlooking the whole situation. Sadly, no food is allowed in the chamber (not a great rule, in terms of  encouraging public attendance).

The Rulebook:
City Council is guided by the Toronto Municipal Code, Council Procedures Bylaw. It starts by describing a few basic principles.  The first three are a great summary of what it’s all about:

1) The majority of members have the right to decide
2) The minority of members have the right to be heard
3) All members have the right to information to help make decisions

The principles are followed by 134 pages of detailed rules and procedures.  I’ll try and summarise the key parts here, to save you the hassle of reading the whole thing.

The Fans:
We, the city-loving geeks of Toronto, are the fans.  And we have a charter of rights.  The procedural bylaw has an entire section dedicated to Public Participation!  It begins with: “Principles of public participation:
The public has the right to participate in the decision-making process by writing to Council or committee, by submitting a public petition, or by making a public
presentation, as the procedures by-law describes.”

The Umpire and Manager:
It’s debatable who’s really in charge at the meeting.  Technically, it’s the Speaker who acts as the meeting ‘Chair’.  He or she runs the meeting, and makes the final decision in the case of a dispute or a challenge to the procedure.  But it’s the City Clerk who really knows the rules, and is the most respected voice in the room.  The clerk and her team sit in the centre of the room, and watch over every moment of the meeting, ensuring that proper procedures are being followed for each motion.  So I would argue that the Speaker is more of a team Manager, but the Clerk is the Umpire.

The Game:
Most of what you’ll see at City Council is a series of short speeches and attempts to get motions passed.   Motions often require amendments in order to get a majority of the room to support it.  Councillors are allowed to speak for five minutes on each item, but they are frequently granted an ‘extension’ and speak for longer.  With 44 Councillors, this can take some time, if they all speak.  In addition, each Councillor can also ask questions of City staff and on occasion, they can ask questions to each other.  On top of that, each Councillor can also speak to every single amendment that is put forward.  On a controversial topic (especially if the TV cameras are rolling), this process can take many hours for a single item.

The Line-Up / Batting order:
Council meetings begin with the approval of the agenda, which is mainly comprised of all the items that are ‘held’.  A Councillor ‘holds’ an item, if he or she wants to see that issue debated on the Council floor.  (If a recommendation coming from a Committee is not ‘held’, then it is automatically is adopted.)

Then, for each item (and each motion, and each amendment), the Chair maintains a list of those who want to speak or ask questions.  The list is conveniently displayed on 50+ screens, in front of all each Councillor and staff person.  For some reason, they don’t show the list on the large public jumbotron, but you can easily see the monitors if you lean forward.

Photo courtesy of Councillor Josh Colle

Keeping an eye on these screens is a must, if you want to get an idea of whether the current item will take 5 minutes or 5 hours.

(note: The batting order can be interrupted, momentarily, if a Councillor rises on a “Point of Order” or a “Point of Privilege”, essentially declaring that a rule has been broken, or the procedure has somehow been flawed.  Once the Chair has made a ruling, the meeting continues.)

The Plays:
Once an item or a motion is on the floor, there are many things that can happen to it.  The most common action, is for an item to be “adopted”, which simply means that a majority of Councillors support the idea.  An item can also be defeated (most Councillors do not support it), and then there are a variety of other creative options that can delay an item, or make it disappear.  A “referral” means that the item has been sent back to a Committee or to staff.  A “deferral” means that Council has decided to deal with the issue at a future meeting.  Also, an item can be “received” which is essentially a black hole.  And lastly, there is “take note and file”, a rarely-used motion that also seems to be a  black hole.

The Scorecard:
After each vote, the results will be flashed on the large screen – but only for a few seconds.  This is a great opportunity to refine your skills of photographic memory. Here’s what a vote count looks like:

For detailed information about motions, amendments, votes, minutes, etc, you can check out the City’s great online tools.

And keep in mind that the City’s website makes it really easy to participate!  When you’re looking at the online agenda, you can click on any item and find a detailed page that includes a button that says “Submit Comments”.  This allows you to easily send a message to all Councillors regarding the item.

So that’s the basic Rules of the Game.  If you want to geek out more, here’s the full 134-page report!  Hope to see you in the clamshell soon!

And just for fun, I’ll try to really drag out this baseball metaphor.  In order to make it work (in a multi-partisan, collaborative way) you’ll have to imagine a casual baseball game, where the goal isn’t to “win” (ie: get more points than the other) but to get as many combined points as possible.  So every ‘run’ is a motion passed.  The more motions passed, the better.

Players • Councillors
Manager • Speaker / Chair
Umpire • Clerk
Captain • Mayor

Line-up • Agenda
Batter’s Box • Speaker’s List
Pinch Hitter • Point of privilege
Scorecard • Minutes
World Series • Annual Budget
Exhibition Game • Public Consultation meeting

Stadium • City Hall
Field • Council Chambers
Dugout • Members’ Lounge
Doctor • Spin Doctor
Snack Bar • “Café on the Square”

Draft • Election
Mid-Season Trade • Bi-election
Minor League • School Board

The ball • An idea
The pitch • A motion
Curveball • An amendment to the motion
Pitcher • Mover
Foul Ball • Motion ruled of order
Hit • Motion is held
Walk • Referral
Ball • Deferal
Strikeout • Motion fails
Run • Motion is passed
Home run • Motion passes unanimously
RBI • Motion passes due to friendly ammendment
Sacrifice Fly • Vote Trading

Heckling • Heckling


9 responses to “Inside Baseball: The Rules of Toronto City Council

  1. Dave, an excellent primer into the Byzantine workings of city hall. Your comparison to baseball is perhaps flawed. I think a better analogy is to a rugby game. Few understand the rules while participants want to hog the ball for as long as possible.

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention Inside Baseball: The Rules of Toronto City Council | Mez Dispenser --

  3. “On top of that, each Councillor can also speak to every single amendment that is put forward”

    That’s incorrect. Movers of amendments can be questioned for up to 5 minutes by any members of council for the purpose of clarification (though as Councillor Colle will tell you, the questions are rarely about clarification). Unlike Roberts Rules, no member is permitted to speak to an amendment separately from the main motion, though they can address one or more amendments that are on the floor in their remarks about the item generally. This is why it is convention for the chair of a the relevant standing committee to speak last on major items — he or she then has the opportunity to recommend publicly which amendments they think should receive support or opposition.

    The only exception to the speak once rule is that every councillor is entitled to speak on a motion of deferral or referral, even if they’ve already spoken or intend to speak should the de/referral be defeated.

  4. You actually make it appear interesting.
    Please let me know your definition of the following pitches :
    Fast ball
    Knuckle ball


  5. There is a budget vote for the Executive Committee on Feb. 10 & it goes to full council Feb. 23 where Del Grande is lower expectations saying they only need 23 council votes to pass the budget compared to the Miller years…

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  9. Pingback: Inside Baseball, or: The Rules of Toronto City Council | politics | Torontoist

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