City Hall Glossary

City Hall jargon and rules can be confusing. Here’s a list of common terms that one might want to know. This is a work in progress; please contact me with any suggestions or corrections.

A proposed change to a motion, anything from a minor technical correction to a complete reversal of the original. Council votes on the changes first, and then on the item as amended or without amendments as the case may be.
Usage: “I move to add ‘and the Medical Officer of Health’ so the motion reads ‘request that the Chief Planner and the Medical Officer of Health report back to Council’.”
To pass a motion. Most items on City Council’s agenda are routine permits, planning applications, and the like, and are adopted on consent (automatically, without debate or amendment.)
Usage: “Last month, Council adopted a motion to ban plastic bags.”
Call the question
To move to end debate and just vote on the item. Yes, a vote to vote. If Council votes yes, they then vote on the item. If not, they keep talking.
Usage: “I call the question.” groans from everyone who wanted to give their speech
Challenge the Speaker
To take issue with a decision of the Speaker’s. Council then votes on whether to uphold the Speaker’s ruling or not.
Usage: “Frances, read the by-law again. That motion is out of order.” “Are you challenging the Speaker?”
The flying saucer-like Council chamber.
Usage: “It’s standing room only in the clamshell.”
A staff member who prepares the agenda, manages documents, gives Council advice about the rules, takes minutes, etc. A full council meeting requires several clerks working together.
Usage: “I’ve asked the clerk, and she agrees that this motion is in order.”
A group of Council members (and sometimes members of the public) who meet separately to debate items before they go to Council. For example, the Public Works & Infrastructure Committee deals with things like road repair; recreational user fees are the domain of the Community Development & Recreation Committee; the Budget Committee is self-explanatory. The Mayor chooses the chair (head) of each committee, as well as everyone on the Executive Committee. Every Council member has to sit on at least one committee. Halfway through the term, everyone can switch committees and new chairs are appointed.
Usage: “Tomorrow, the Economic Development Committee will debate a music industry partnership with Austin, Texas.”
Community Council
A committee that deals with items specific to one part of Toronto—usually permits, planning applications and the like. There are four Community Councils, for Etobicoke/York, North York, Scarborough, and Toronto/East York respectively. Each Community Council is made up of the councillors from that particular area.
Usage: “Councillor Doucette is the lone progressive on Etobicoke-York Community Council.”
City of Toronto Act. In a nutshell: the 2006 provincial law that lays out the powers and limits of Toronto’s city government. It says what taxes we can implement, how much say we get in planning, the accountability and transparency measures we must have, and more.
Usage: “A sales tax sounds like a great idea, but we’d have to ask the province to amend CoTA first.”
A short speech or presentation made by a member of the public to a committee. Must be related to a specific item, you can’t just go in and rant at them for five minutes for no reason. “Depute”: to give a deputation. “Deputant”: someone who gives a deputation.
Usage: “We’ve heard many deputations on how important childcare is.”
Where members of the public sit in the Council chamber.
Usage: “I”m hearing a lot of chatter from the gallery. Please keep it down or I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
Hold for debate
Often simply hold. To call dibs on an item so it will not be passed automatically, but discussed and voted on by Council. A member of Council may hold an item because it is too important to be adopted without debate; because they want to annoy the colleague whose ward it pertains to; because they want to make a speech about it for their constituents, etc. See also release.
Usage: “Cllr Ford held the item just so he could rail against driveway by-laws.”
In camera
When the meeting is closed to the public because confidential matters are being discussed — for example, employee relations, real estate deals, or ongoing court cases. Also called closed session. From Latin camera (room, chamber). (The photographic camera gets its name from the camera obscura — “dark room”.)
Usage: “We’re going in camera at 6 p. m.”
In/out of order
In accordance with/not in accordance with the rules. By the rules I mean the City Council procedures by-law. Most of the things in this glossary are defined in the procedures by-law but it’s 127 pages long and super dry.
Usage: “You’re out of order! This whole damn chamber’s out of order!”
Key item/matter
The Mayor gets to pick an item from the agenda that they consider especially important, and it gets debated first.
Usage: “The fate of the Finch LRT is expected to be the Mayor’s key item at the meeting.”
A proposed decision or action relating to a particular agenda item. For example, if the item is about transit options, a councillor might put forward a motion to build a subway instead of light rail. See also amendment.
Usage: “I have an urgent motion to introduce.”
Order paper
The final form of the agenda, hammered out at the beginning of each meeting. This is when Council decides which items will be debated, whether any will be scheduled for particular times, etc. Committee chairs provide updates on what their committee has gotten done, and councillors introduce petitions from their constituents.
Usage: “According to the order paper, the food truck debate will be the first thing tomorrow afternoon.”
Point of order
Councillors can raise this at any time to draw the Speaker’s attention to a breach of the meeting rules.
Usage: “Point of order, Madam Speaker — we should be voting on all these items separately.”
Point of personal privilege
Councillors can raise this at any time when they feel someone’s rights or dignity or comfort is being infringed.
Usage: “Madam Speaker, on a point of personal privilege, my colleague here should apologize for his rude comments.”
The minimum number of councillors necessary to have a meeting — according to the rules, a simple majority (23), and they all have to be in their seats instead of wandering around. If it looks like more than half the councillors are absent, there is a quorum call where they take attendance.
Usage: “There’s only 20 people here. We can’t vote on this until we have quorum.”
A Council member can move receipt/put forward a motion to receive an item, which just means “okay, we saw this, we don’t want to do anything about it.”
Usage:Receiving the Ombudsman’s report would effectively bury the matter.”
A short break, or to take a short break.
Usage: “Council has recessed for lunch.” “I’m calling a five-minute recess so you can all calm down.”
Recorded vote
When councillors vote by pressing buttons, thus recording it electronically, instead of with a show of hands. Any councillor can demand any vote be recorded. A headache for councillors, but a boon for data nerds.
Usage: “I didn’t see who voted No on that motion; it wasn’t a recorded vote.”
When a member of Council who has held an item decides they don’t want to debate it after all. They can announce that they’re releasing the item when it comes up on the agenda, or at specific times (e. g. after the lunch break or at the end of the day) when Council takes care of routine business like that. See also hold.
Usage: “I’d like to release CD1.1, I talked to staff over lunch and my questions have been answered.”
A councillor, elected by Council at the first meeting, whose job is to run the meetings and make sure the rules are being followed. They are referred to as Madam, Mr., or perhaps Mx. Speaker.
Usage: “The Speaker must always be impartial.”
The length of time that councillors and the Mayor are elected to serve. A term is four years long. The current term is 2014-2018.
Usage: “Licensing for tattoo parlours was introduced last term.”
Two-thirds vote
Council can vote to make a one-time exception to the rules. However, this vote must pass by 2/3 (30 councillors voting yes) instead of a simple majority (23 councillors voting yes). Some things you need a two-thirds vote for: extending the meeting, making a change to the order paper, waiving referral, calling the question. Some things you can’t have a two-thirds vote on: making an exception to the two-thirds rule, you smartass; how many people are needed for quorum; the rules about whether a meeting must be open or closed to the public.
Usage: “Half of the councillors want to finish the meeting tonight.” “That’s not enough, it has to be a two-thirds vote.”
Waive referral
To make an exception to the rule that motions must be passed by a committee before being put on the Council agenda. When a councillor introduces a new motion they just prepared, Council must first vote to waive referral. If the vote carries, the motion is added to the agenda. If not, the councillor must get it through committee first.
Usage: “The vote to waive referral carries.”

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