A Stanstead, Quebec, town councillor is proposing a new municipal tax on babies’ eyeballs. Each new baby born in the Town of Stanstead will be charged $6 for one eyeball, a bargain $10 for two eyeballs. If you’re a baby born elsewhere but move to Stanstead, you’ll have to pay a $15 eyeball surcharge, because we don’t know where those eyes have been.
The purpose of the proposed legislation is to generate some much-needed revenue for the town and to give an opportunity for citizens to say, “Dang it, I’m taxed to the eyeballs!” and really mean it.
Is this true? Maybe? Who knows. Perhaps one of the town councillors really did put forth this notion of a motion. “Baby eyeballs freak me out,” he or she might have said, “so huge in those tiny heads of theirs. We should tax those little goo bags, teach them life is real.”
It’s hard to say if this is in fact the case because Stanstead, like most Quebec municipalities, does much if not all of its council business privately and merely rubber-stamps its decisions at public sessions. It’s the only jurisdiction in North America that allows the practice.
“Work meetings” they call them, or “caucus.” That’s where suggestions get put forward and debated, even informally voted on. Or quite possibly those suggestions are rejected as unfeasible because, honestly, are you going to have an eyeball inspector? Conduct a door-to-door eyeball census? How would you tag eyeballs anyway? What if parents tried to cheat the system by putting cool shades on their baby, or an eyepatch, so you wouldn’t be able to tell how many eyeballs they have?
Work meetings – again, that’s “work meetings,” not “secret meetings” – are where you really see the true characters of the people you and I elected, how they think, whether they’re pulling their weight, where they stand on taxing body parts. That is, you would see it if it weren’t for the fact that it all happens behind closed doors. Secretly.
This past Monday, I went to my first Stanstead council meeting in a long time. It’s two years ago this month that my wife was elected to council, so I thought I’d mark the occasion by showing up for once. I had my heckling all planned and everything. (“You sure weren’t all in favour last night,” etc.) I was excited to watch her in action.
Trust me, there wasn’t much action.
The public consisted of me and Record reporter Steve Blake, and we sat there as the mayor and council raced through the agenda within half an hour, the director-general reading the resolutions aloud, moved, seconded, rubber-stamped, next. Granted, it was a light agenda, with no organ-related legislation of any kind. No doubt, behind closed doors, one of the more sensible councillors (let’s be honest: my wife) pointed out that there’s no place for the state in the eyeballs of the nation.
There was actually one resolution – a motion to grant additional funding to this past fall’s Septemberfest – that generated minimal polite discussion before being turned down in a divided vote. Later, Mayor Philippe Dutil explained that council had approved $1000 in a work meeting prior to the event but had failed to pass an actual resolution at the public meeting, which is ironic, don’t you think?
Anyway, in the end, Septemberfest made a profit without the town’s money, Dutil explained, so the majority of council felt that the $1000 could be put to better use elsewhere.
That was the excitement for the night, excitement that had to be explained. Because it had already been hashed out. Behind closed doors.
After the meeting, we got into a bit of a debate about work meetings versus open meetings. The mayor pointed out that, if the public were party to all the discussions, some councillors might not speak their mind. Then they’re bad councillors! When you have elected officials who are only brave behind closed doors, well, that’s how you end up with eyeball taxes, folks.
I made the case that open meetings help voters see which councillors work in the public’s best interest. “But no one comes to council meetings,” one of the councillors argued. “Because they’re so boring!” I replied.
It wasn’t always boring. When I worked for The Stanstead Journal, council meetings were long, often tedious, sometimes ugly, but always open. Hashing out resolutions in public revealed the dominant players, the peacemakers, the bench warmers. So, it can be done – and was. Did I report on councillors saying stupid things? You bet. Could it be embarrassing? Sometimes. Was it messy? Occasionally. But democracy is messy. That’s what’s so great about it.
I could have stayed and debated the issue longer, but the councillors gently kicked Steve and me out. They had a work meeting. Not sure what it was about; they refused to say. I bet it’s a toenail tax.