Last week's council featured more debate than usual, a refreshing change probably because no one present felt the need to call for the vote before discussion was finished. The topic that took up the most time was the new proposed communications plan, and the part of that which brought up the greatest difference of opinion was the $42,000 to buy time on the local radio chain, for regular interviews with the mayor, city manager, or a designate.
The proposed plan didn't say why paying for something that we currently get for free would be an improvement, since the radio now interviews the mayor after every council meeting, every other Tuesday morning. But the opinion of some members of council was that this would be better, because we could "control the message".
So the plan isn't to provide more information about city council, it's to provide a controlled message about how great we're doing. This, by any definition, would be called propaganda, and shouldn't be something that we spend taxpayers' dollars on.
I'm all for keeping the public informed about what we're doing, preferably before we do it, so that there's the opportunity for input and ideas before final decisions are made. But my repeated suggestions that the city page, which we already are paying for, include information about upcoming committee meetings, as well as council and executive meetings (which the Saskatoon city council does on their page of advertising), have been ignored. Somehow, I don't think that in our controlled message there will be mention made of all the maintenance activities that were left out of the most recent budget, or the reduction of the fiscal stabilization fund from $1.9 million at the end of 2005 to $239,804 at the end of March, 2009 - yes, this current council depleted the fund by more than $1.5 million before it decided to put a small fraction back in this year's budget. But letting people know about that wouldn't be the kind of message that this council wants people to hear.
This is, of course, an election year. What this will do is provide free pre-election coverage for some members of council. It's interesting that councillors get $500 each year as a communications allowance - this is frozen six months before the election, because it wouldn't be right for taxpayers to pay even slightly for a councillor's election expenses. But $42,000 to pay for infomercials is considered okay.
The communications plan (to use the word lightly), doesn't even set any targets, or evaluation criteria. The reasoning behind putting more money into radio spots was that "young people don't read newspapers". I have news for some members of the administration - they don't listen to the radio either. They're on the internet, on Facebook or You Tube. They download what they want to listen to onto their Ipods, and I'll bet listening to someone on council talk about how great this year's banners look won't be something that they would even think about downloading. And we have no idea how to measure the success of this change - unless, of course, it helps some people get re-elected - then they'll no doubt point to major success.
Provide people with unbiased information, before decisions are made, and let them make up their own minds about whether council is doing a good job - don't be trying to control the message, because that sort of tactic tends to backfire.
"We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark: the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light." - Plato