Friday, September 28, 2018

Calls for more transparency could cover many themes if Council candidates are inclined to discuss the issue on Monday night

With the candidates settling into their pace for the next five weeks of electioneering some are beginning to put out some campaign feelers on where they sit on a number of issues and one of the current ones appears to be a familiar campaign theme of a call for more transparency.

The drum beat of Transparency, accountability and other similar themes seems to be heard quite loudly prior to the election cycle,  though as time moves forward, that beat becomes a little less audible once the team has been assembled in Council chambers.

That was the case in 2014, when many of the candidates made sweeping commentary about those themes, the rather large number of closed council meetings and civic work down outside of the public eye.

October 13, 2014 -- Platforms, Platforms, Platforms
September 15, 2014 -- More transparency, more town halls the call from the Lee Brain campaign

However, over the last four years those closed meetings have held to pretty well the same pace of the previous council, this year standing at 12 and counting.

The in camera workshops have grown in number and more and more often, the work of council is delivered by way of a social media announcement or press releases and not through the public forum of a Council chamber.

As well, even when council sessions take place in public session, as we noted earlier this month, the amount of time spent in the Council chamber has at times been of limited duration, ranging from a low of nine minutes to the longest session of the year of 80 minutes.

And even with that reduced work load, at one point at the start of the year, the original council schedule had cleared the Council chambers from September through to November,  a calendar change that would have seen but 11 public sessions for the year, something that Council wisely chose to revise, expanding their Council duties later in the year.

Council sessions that last less than half an hour, (540 seconds in one instance), can hardly offer up the chance for much in the way of civic debate, let alone transparency or accountability.

With the pattern of the last year one that would seem to indicate that the bulk of Council's work is now done in camera and far beyond the overview of a public session.

Just one example of how much of that work has been taken on behind closed doors, comes from the decisions related to Watson Island, where the City went from an original plan of selling the industrial site, to now becoming landlord of a Logistics terminal.

The topic and Council's new approach was not raised once in public session until the final decision had been made, the Council session but one of the launch forums for the city's newest adventure.

Whether one believes that the Watson decision was right, or wrong, something of such consequence for the city and its taxpayers probably should have been subject to some vigorous discussion in public, so as to allow for some transparency on how council went about its work to take on such a commitment.

The same could be said for the work of the Legacy Corporation and its use, another civic instrument which we rarely learn much about.

To be fair, a few of the council members have tried to introduce elements of more transparency, though as the four year mandate moved forward, those efforts appear to have drifted away, the ambitions perhaps still there, but lost among the many other agenda items competing for attention.

Councillor Cunningham lamented as much earlier this month, when he observed that his long advocated quest to have civic groups, as well as city departments and services appear in front of council to provide regular reports, never did seem to gain much traction through the last four years.

It's been a long running theme for the councillor who brought the topic up for attention earlier this year exploring how he would like to see Council address the issue.

Mr. Cunningham also has been the strongest advocate for the continuation of the Committee of the Whole process, which offers the residents the only opportunity, once a month (when Council choose to put it on the agenda) to address issues of concern and raise them publicly with their elected representatives.

In the last few years, council has floated the idea of making some changes to that one element of public conversation and accountability that the city's residents have access to.

However, so far, Council has not made any modifications to that access,  with Mr. Cunningham looking to keep the current process as it is and expand on what it can offer the public.

And while it is true that the Committee of the Whole opportunity often goes by without contribution from residents, the ability to appear in front of Council is something that should always be welcomed by Council members.

In May of last year, Councillor Mirau also took note of some concern in the community on the number of closed meetings that the city holds, following up on his original thoughts, later that month with a blue print of sorts of how he would like to see Council address the issue.

Councillor Mirau also explores the theme through his campaign website, making accountability and more public communication part of his enhancement plans for Accountability.

Among his current campaign notes, there is a desire that Council be held to account more than once every four year election cycle, though he hasn't outlined in any detail what form of accountability that vision might provide for.

The opportunity to expand on that concept and any others will be available to Mr. Mirau and all the other candidates this Monday, when the City Council election forum takes place at the Lester Centre.

Some other possible elements that council hopefuls may want to explore further at the Monday Forum could be:

Dedicate themselves to pushing forward Councillor Cunningham's plan for more accountability through reports to City Council

Less reliance on closed council sessions and faster delivery of information to the public from those that they believe they have to hold.

Listing how each council member votes on issues that are considered at the Council Sessions.

Making public the expenses recorded by Council members and senior staff both in town and while travelling on city business.

Taking advantage of the Committee of the Whole Process to better engage with the public and to help increase awareness of the work of City Council.

Go on the record for the public as to whether they want to keep the Mayor's position as that of a full time one with the current salary level in place 

And how the new council will approach the loss of the tax free portion of their salary from the new Federal tax legislation

Some residents may have their own ideas on transparency and accountability as well, Monday offers up the chance to put the council members to the test on their dedication towards the theme.

The doors open to the Monday evening forum at the Lester Centre at 6:30.

For some further notes on the 2018 Civic and School District Election see our Election page here.

A wider look at some of the past City Council Discussion topics can be found from our Council Archive page here.

To return to the most recent blog posting of the day, click here.

1 comment:

  1. Councillor Cunningham's "firm position" on transparency, as quoted above, is really just deflection. He says that societies that receive public funds should be more transparent. He does not say that the City council that he has been a member of, that spends far more public funds than all of the societies put together, should be more transparent.