Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A crack in the door to transparency at City Hall?

“I’m not sure about being on the leading edge, you might be on the leading edge of our own demise, but that’s my own opinion and of course one of my roles here as the mayor is to safeguard the community. But there’s no harm in asking and having a healthy discussion,” -- Mayor Jack Mussallem, as quoted in the Northern View, outlining his concerns over a motion to provide more details on closed door sessions of Prince Rupert city council.

Prince Rupert's city council on Monday night provided for a majority opinion in the quest for a more transparent city council, as council members voted 4 to 2 with one absence, in favour of a plan to provide a bit more information when it comes to the agenda of the closed door sessions.

The closed door conclave, seemingly growing in frequency with this particular council has been a bit of an issue for a while now, the bid to make the municipal government process more open to the community has been a much discussed the goal of councillor Anna Ashley, predating her election to office two years ago.

As the Northern View outlines for us in their review of Monday's council meeting, four of six members of council voted in favour of the motion to instruct city staff to provide more information than is legally required on the details of the closed door sessions.

Those in favour of the motion were Councillor's Ashley, Garon, Thorkelson and Kinney, casting a nay on the motion as it was presented, were Mayor Jack Mussallem and Councillor Kathy Bedard. Councillor Gordon Payne was not in attendance at council for the vote.

Thus far, posted notices on the closed sections have subscribed to the barest of minimums of section 90 of the Community Charter, with the motion passed those notices may soon include a brief preview of the topics to be discussed. A move that Councillor Ashley suggests could put the city on the leading edge of transparency when it comes to municipal government.

A sentiment of progress that was not quite shared by the Mayor, who cautioned council that the move may lead council to its own demise. Casting his vote against the proposed motion, he outlined that Ashley's motion  by requiring council to provide a small measure of information could  put council under increasing pressure to answer questions, which in his mind it seems could result in trouble down the road for the city.

Councillor Thorkelson added to the debate with the suggestion that council most likely will err on the side of caution when it comes to disclosure of closed meeting talking points, to that end she offered up a second motion after approval of the closed meeting notifications, instructing staff to consult lawyers before any information on the closed meeting agendas is provided.

The timing of her motion seems to have angered her fellow Councillor Bedard, who had issued a call to defer the decision until staff had sought a legal opinion on the topic.

Her recommendation had received no support from council and died on the table as the council went on to vote on the main motion, leaving councillor Bedard and the Mayor on the no side of the debate.

Ms. Bedard suggested that by that second motion council was asking staff to cover their collective rear ends after the fact, which in her mind was a backwards way of doing things, preferring a two week delay for further study on the issue.

Not mentioned in the review of Monday's meeting was the prospect of any increased costs in the quest for further transparency of council gatherings.

The prospect of potential legal fees for the city with this initiative was addressed by Councillor Ashley on the local information portal hackingthemainframe, as the councillor outlined that the legal requirements would not be on an agenda to agenda basis, but rather as part of the initial set up of the new policy.

The motion has clearly identified a split on this council when it comes to the process of municipal governance, four councillors have opted towards the goal of more disclosure, while the Mayor and Councillor Bedard fear that the motion put in place as of Monday, may cause damage to the council's ability to work on our behalf,  leaving only Councillor Gordon-Payne to weigh in with an opinion on the topic at further meetings.

The next scheduled closed door meeting should provide for an interesting test to the theories expanded on in council on Monday.  How council reacts to the new process will be instructive for us all as to whether the motion will be successful or not and if further transparency is possible with the current line up of elected officials.

By providing more information about the substance of the closed door sessions, residents will have a better idea as to what controversial topics may be on the city's agenda, but rarely outlined in public.

Advising us that something is on an agenda at a closed meeting most likely won't spell the end of municipal governance, for the most part we doubt that the full discussion of those meetings will ever be part of a public record.

The Mayor may be right on one thing however, the initiative towards more information may raise more questions in the community about those items in closed debate.

Questions and concerns that most likely need to be asked anyways.

And for a government that is responsible  and accountable to  its residents, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

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