Friday, January 27, 2012

The Trust of Transparency

Residents elect a government for a reason. They have families, work and a myriad of personal obligations. They do not have the time or information needed to govern by plebiscite.

Our democracy is based on electing knowledgeable people of high moral and ethical principles. We then entrust them to run our municipality, province and nation in our best interests.

Transparency is recognized as a valuable tool to hold elected officials responsible and accountable to those who elect them. There has been a lot of talk in the media and government circles about transparency.

“Be open and honest with your citizens”; “Shine the light on secrecy.” Is it motherhood and apple pie rhetoric with elected officials running to the social media and TV interviews in an attempt to prove how very transparent they are? Are we just shouting clich├ęs at each other?

What does transparency and openness mean in the real world? I have a very simple definition and code that I live by personally and am committed to professionally.

Transparency to me means: if there is no legal reason for information to be held private, then that information should be made public, available to all.

I believe that without transparency, there can be no trust.

I believe that the public does have a right to information that does not infringe on the rights of others.

The Municipal Government Act and the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act direct that: matters of commercial (land dealings), legal (contractual matters) and labour relations are confidential and must not be put in the public realm.

These acts were created to protect the public interest.

In order to be truly open and transparent, in order for there to be public assurance that elected officials are not using the system for their own benefit, information must be accessible, whenever legally possible.

Meetings must be open to the public and media. Bylaws and budgets must be open to public scrutiny and

Decisions must not stand in isolation — the public must have access to the path that led to that decision.
I have championed the webcasting and archiving of public council meetings. The acceptance by council is an example of how council has cracked open a window to transparency.

It is now time to open the door. Let’s look at our council workshops. These meetings are, I’m told, “technically” open to the public, and yet, strangely, we do not advertise them to the public.

I see this as an opportunity to engage the public. I welcome residents watching councillors filter through the onerous amounts of information and studies to make decisions on building a better community.

So many residents ask for more information. They want to understand and support the decision makers — they want to be a part of the process.

Residents should be made to feel welcome at council workshops.

Now let’s talk about these private or “in-camera” meetings, which are held before every public meeting and last about four hours.

There has been a fair amount of discussion lately in local social media on what issues should be private and what should be held in public.

If there is no legal reason for information to be held private, then comfortable or not comfortable, that information should be made public.

Did you know that our municipality will not even release the subject of issues that we discuss in our private meetings?
Other governments, including the City of Edmonton publicise an agenda for their private meetings so that taxpayers can at least know what topic is being discussed behind closed doors.

Because I believe strongly in the value and necessity of transparency, I have found myself conflicted over a number of topics discussed in private meetings by this council — but that is a discussion for another time.

1 comment:

  1. It really surprises me that in camera meetings last about as long as the public meetings.

    Given that the public doesn't know about the workshops and are excluded from the in camera sessions, it seems that the public meetings are truly the tip of the iceberg, with the mass of discussion kept below the waterline of public view.


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