What purpose does a municipal council serve if not to question and evaluate the various spending and contractual proposals of the city? If elected officials are responsible and, therefore, accountable for the contracts they award, it is imperative that they be able to fully understand the documents before voting. Yet, in Montreal, documents are regularly made available to councillors mere hours before the vote, and sometimes only during the council session itself. It is frequently impossible to read an entire file before voting, let alone understand it!

While in Montreal most files are delivered to councillors at least three to 10 days before council sits, the current administration regularly resorts to the practice of “séance tenante,” or in-session delivery. Since the law and the City Charter require the executive committee only to make available beforehand the label of the item to be voted (for example, award contract of $X to company Y), the executive committee can take all the time they want before presenting relevant documents (details of the call for tenders, a copy of the contract, analysis of services, context related to previous decisions, etc.) at the very last minute. And they rarely miss an opportunity to do so.

Since the last election, in November 2013, the total value of contracts awarded this way has skyrocketed to $170 million. The most troubling, if not shocking, example took place this past March, when a $99 million contract was submitted in session. Despite repeated calls by councillors to push the vote to the next council session in order for them to have a chance to read the file, the contract was presented — and passed, thanks to the votes of a majority of councillors allied to the Coderre Administration. Even if we can all accept that there will be differences in points of view on a given contract, nobody should think that it’s acceptable to expect councillors to vote without having read it.

This practice is anything but normal. In other cities, it is rare, frowned upon — even banned. Such is the case in Paris, Lyon and other French cities, where the law requires that agenda items be accompanied by the relevant documents, and available at least five days before the council session. Debate is not permitted without the accompanying files. Closer to home, in Toronto and New York, rules also require all documents to be included, a given number of days in advance. To circumvent this rule, for example in a case requiring emergency action, requires a specific debate and approval by two-thirds of councillors.

We could certainly envisage a bylaw banning recourse to “séance tenante,” but until then, there is nothing preventing political leadership and goodwill. New administrations in Quebec City and Gatineau provide good examples. Each simply — and honourably — renounced the practice. Such deliveries of files have become rare. And when used, it is never done with the intention of awarding large contracts while avoiding questions from councillors, or worse still, reserving for oneself the purely partisan advantage of announcing such contracts in a news conference.

With the support of many colleagues, I will present a motion at the next municipal council meeting, on Monday, demanding the administration renounce this practice so that councillors may receive important documents with enough time to analyze the information, verify the facts, ask questions — and receive answers. The entire municipal council should demand this as a bare minimum, in the name of good governance, vigilance and transparency.

Guillaume Lavoie of Projet Montréal is city councillor for Marie-Victorin district and Official Opposition finance critic. He is also vice-president of the Finance and Administration Committee.