Back in May, the Victoria Curling Club went to City Hall with an idea for replacing the club’s 59-year old facility, located on city property on Quadra Street. Curling club representatives came armed with a $50,000 consultant study paid for, in part, by contributions from the City, as well as Saanich, Oak Bay and Esquimalt. The study recommended building a new facility on a city-owned site just north of the current club building.
Club representatives came looking for two things: financial help with the projected $16 million replacement cost and an extension of the current 5-year leasehold arrangement it has with the City, to 99 years.
Did City Council discuss the matter with them? No. It sat there and listened to the proposal, and without further ado, voted to send it to City staff for evaluation. Mayor Dean Fortin wouldn’t even comment on it after the council meeting because, he said, it was now confidential and the staff report would have to be discussed in camera. Why? Because it dealt with a land issue and because there were legal issues concerning the lease request, said the Mayor.
And so a $16 million project involving city-owned property and a semi-public recreational facility used by thousands of residents of four municipalities went behind closed doors. And stayed there, despite Fortin’s mumbled apology to a Times Colonist reporter later that “perhaps we didn’t think it through.”
Au contraire! Going behind closed doors to discuss business that City taxpayers have a right to know about and take part in is not just an occasional faux pas here in Victoria. It’s the order of the day. Over the past two years alone, City Council has gone in camera (closed session) for 32 of the last 33 regular Council meetings.
Compare that with Nanaimo, where Council has gone in camera only nine times in three years. (Not only that, but you can watch Nanaimo Council meetings live via the internet, conduct keyword searches on Council minutes dating back to 2005, assess individual voting patterns, and much more. We should be so informed.)
Just what criteria does Victoria City Council use to decide whether or not to bar the public at its meetings? We aren’t told why. Listed under the Council Bylaw they use to make this decision are four instances where Council must go in camera, and 15 situations where it may bar the public at its discretion. Here in Victoria however, City Council simply lumps them all together in a single ‘gag’ motion. Here’s a typical example, from the June 9, 2011 Council meeting:
“It was moved by Councillor Luton, seconded by Councillor Alto, that Council convene the closed meeting that excludes the public under Section 12(6) of the Council Bylaw for the reason that the following agenda items deal with matters specified in Sections 12(3) and/or (4) of the Council Bylaw. Carried”
The key phrase is “matters specified in Sections 12(3) and/or (4) of the Council Bylaw.” Section 12(3) is the list of 15 reasons why Council may bar the public if they choose to do so; and (4) are the four reasons they must do so. But Victoria’s City Council never specifies which of the 19 reasons it is using to deny public access. Could be a personnel issue, could be a land issue, or maybe, “we just didn’t think it through.” They never say.
We live in an age where entire nations built on secrecy and limited public access to information are crumbling under the impact of the internet, cell phones and social media. Why then, here in little old Victoria, under a civic regime that continually brags about its “public engagement process”, do we have a Council and Mayor that slam the door shut at every public meeting?
Two years ago, when City Hall was up to its tuckus in citizen outrage over the secrecy and manipulation being used to ram the Blue Bridge project through, Council grasped in desperation at a political life-ring called “the City of Victoria Draft Engagement Strategy.” This was the mea culpa that would show the irate mob that Council had learned its lesson and would henceforth employ, and I quote, “a vision of greater transparency, better trust and understanding, reduced conflict and an atmosphere in which sharing and learning is fostered.”
A supporter of the strategy noted: “As taxpayers are squeezed from more and more sides, understanding and support for the choices council makes becomes more critical.”
Among the recommendations to make this dream a reality, was one calling for improved notice of Council meetings, electronic access to materials and speedy posting of (draft) minutes. Fat chance. The City’s website is notoriously unhelpful, hard to navigate and out of date. For example, Council continues to withhold access to the minutes of its previous meeting until they are formally adopted at the next one, i.e not less than two weeks after the prior meeting and an entire month later in summer.
Access to information at City Hall has been obstructed in many other ways as well, not all of them so obvious. One example is the increase in the number of so-called “administrative committees.” These committees consist of hand-picked members of the public who are not obliged to hold meetings in public and are regularly used to advise City staff (in private, of course) on specific public issues. There is no provision in the Community Charter for these administrative committees and therefore no way of monitoring their activities. It’s another sign of the creeping secrecy and overweening “issue management” regimen that permeates City Hall.
The same can be said about Freedom of Information requests. Citizens simply should not have to file an FOI request every time they want to find out something that didn’t appear in the newspaper. An outrageous example: the Engineering Department refused numerous requests throughout the summer of 2009 to make the Delcan condition assessment and Kalman heritage assessment of the Blue Bridge publicly available, even though both reports were paid for with taxpayers’ dollars and were instrumental in the decision to replace the bridge. If the City were truly interested in an “engaged public” its default policy should be that all information is public and should be made public, unless there is a compelling legal reason not to do so. Here however, is what the City actually requires of FOI applicants, including a 2-page list of fees involved: http://www.victoria.ca/cityhall/foi.shtml
The casual observer might ask, “So what? Does this kind of secrecy at City Hall have any real impact on anyone other than frustrated media scribes and political junkies?”
Yes it does. In spades.
As demonstrated by the provincial government’s HST disaster, and by City Hall’s fumbled Blue Bridge project, denying access to information and manipulating public debate invariably have a bad effect on the taxpayer’s pocketbook. Never mind the enormous added cost and delay of holding referenda on issues that should have been open from the start, consider the enormous amount of extra staff time and resources it takes every day to run a closed system of government — public relations staff, consultants, lawyers and on and on. In Victoria, such costs are a major reason why the number of City Hall bureaucrats in the $100,000 a year club has jumped from 19 to 44 in less than three years. It is no exaggeration to say that our City Hall is now dangerously close to being run by a group of politicians and bureaucrats whose own professional and personal interests appear to be far better served by the closed-door style of government they operate than the needs of the taxpaying public at large. And keep in mind, this same ‘old-boys-and-girls club’ is about to launch a billion-dollar light rail transit promotion using the same procedures.
It’s time to call for a change. Victorians need and deserve to have a civic government that puts the public’s right to know ahead of its own agenda. Taxes are rising, jobs are disappearing, services are being cut back, and still we are being treated like schoolchildren who can’t be trusted with the truth.
Thankfully, there are a number of concerned Victoria citizens who see this as well. They, and others who are joining, are organizing to develop a new approach to our City Hall administration. They want to move from the present “closed” regime at City Hall, to an “open” style of government that isn’t afraid to share information, engage in genuine discussion with the electorate and to seek out the most innovative and effective solution to every problem.
Such a government would be “open” in every sense of the word: open access to public information, open council meetings would be the rule not the exception, open to new ideas and people with diverse opinions and abilities, open to new and exciting possibilities for ensuring the social, environmental and economic future of Victoria is as bright as its past.
It’s time to Open Victoria.
By Derry McDonell. This article originally appeared in The Moss Rock Review. Photo by Elizabeth Welsh, used under a Creative Commons licence.
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