Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Some Thoughts on Openness and Accountability

The PA Herald had an editorial last week wondering if there was any way to show how each council member votes, every time. Currently, unless a request for a recorded vote is made by a member of council before the vote, a quick (sometimes very quick) show of hands is used. And some members of the public have noticed that some members of council sometimes do not participate in this show of hands, which could be seen as abstaining (or of having slow reflexes, I suppose). While abstaining on a vote is allowed under the Cities Act, if one does choose to abstain, the reason for abstention is supposed to be recorded. This doesn't happen here.

Anyway, the editorial suggested that being able to see how each councillor voted would add some much needed transparency to council goings-on. I agree, and would add that it would remove some of the opportunity for fence-sitting on contentious issues that is there under the current practice.

Then Barb Gustafson, a former council colleague, provided information in a letter to the editor on how some communities deal with the issue, by not closing the vote until everyone has voted, and by making the results clearly visible – right now, the cameras only show one side of council, so at best, you can see how half of the members vote. These are good suggestions, and perhaps the next council will investigate the costs of these options, to see if it would be feasible for Prince Albert.

I’ve been known to request that a vote be recorded when I think that people will be particularly interested in who votes how. I’ve also been subject to some eye-rolling when I do this, from other members of council who appear to feel that actually verbalizing their vote is some sort of imposition. The eye-rolling doesn’t stop me, though. We have various tools to improve how we deliver democracy, and I believe in using them as I see fit.

Another area where we fail at openness is our habit of holding discussions in camera, or privately, of matters that should be discussed in the open. Once again, our direction in the Cities Act is that the only discussions not to be held in public are those which involve collective bargaining, personnel matters, legal opinions, and land negotiations. Discussions about the nuclear survey done last year is one example of something kept in camera that should have been public; a very recent one is the Green Industrial Park proposal, which we received at an in camera meeting on Monday. That presentation should have been public, and wasn’t. When I question these matters, the justification is usually that it’s strategic planning. That’s all well and good, but the law does not include strategic planning as an allowed reason for secrecy. The result is often that plans are well underway before the public has the option to comment and make suggestions, and then, time is usually too short for full discussion.

Interestingly, Saskatoon City Council reviewed concept plans for their public library expansion at an in camera meeting last week. Following the meeting, the city clerk admitted that doing so had been a mistake, even though no decisions were made. The Star Phoenix found this troubling enough to write an editorial castigating their council for keeping this discussion private, saying that doing so raised questions about what other issues that should be public were being discussed in private, and that it limited the opportunity for the public to be involved in discussions.

As city council members, we are often our own gate-keepers when it comes to following the rules. It’s easy to forget, to try to do things the expedient way, to feel that following the law will just take too long. We should be doing our best to ensure that we follow not just the letter, but also the spirit of the law.

Yes, more transparency is needed. Yes, it’s possible. But more members of council need to feel this way for any kind of change to happen.

Perhaps a simple and no-cost first step would be for us to vote more slowly, and for whoever is chairing the meeting to ensure that everyone has voted, before saying "Motion carried". We were elected to make decisions – the least each of us should do is make a decision, clearly, every time, even those decisions which might upset some people.

"Speak your mind and fear less the label of crackpot than the stigma of conformity. And on issues that seem important to you, stand up and be counted at any cost." – Thomas J. Watson

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