The Weekender: Sharing Should Be Caring at City Hall

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This Monday at city council, the integrity commissioner will do something he hasn’t to do in a while, give council a report on a complaint that was filed against several its members. Unfortunately, I can’t comment on this thing at arm’s length because Guelph Politico is right deep into it; the complaint involves two people, one identified and one not, who talking to me. The charge was that these people broke the seal of confidentiality of the closed meeting, and while Robert Swayze found that on most counts the complaints are unfounded. But I think this whole episode misses the real problem: we’re having too much discussion in closed meetings.

Now don’t get me wrong, the ability to discuss things in closed, or in-camera, sessions is important. There are matters of confidentiality to consider, personal information that is preferably not for public consumption, and sensitivity issues that councillors must feel free to comment on candidly without fear of political reprisals. Open government is a brilliant thing to strive for, but things like employee evaluations, and the progressive discipline of an employee are always confidential no matter what sector you work in. But that’s not we’re talking about here because I know there are certain people that think there’s some sort of conspiracy behind a certain staff member recently getting a raise.

We need to look at the bigger picture. I recently did a story for Politico about the re-vote of the student bus pass referendum at the University of Guelph. A total of 14 per cent of the student body cast a ballot in the first round, over three-quarters voting in favour, but quorum can only be met if 20 per cent of the undergrad cast votes. I decided to phone Phil Meagher, manager of transit, to ask him what would happen in the unlikely event that the vote failed, or if it failed to meet quorum again, and he told me that there was a media “blackout” until after the vote was over. Why? What big secret is there to keep here except that the city might not of have had a contingency plan?

Our next item up for bids was the recent City negotiations with three Canadian Union of Public Employees locals. I know, I know, they don’t bargain in the media, but who said anything about bargaining? We just want to know what the issues are! There was nothing so infuriating about the City’s move to lockout the Amalgamated Transit Union local 1189 in the summer of 2014 than not knowing why the City was locking out the bus drivers. The City assured us that the union demands were financially detrimental, but how? Sorry, we don’t negotiate in the media they said. Well, when you say that the union’s demands will cost the city heavily in a press release, aren’t you?

It wasn’t until after the transit employees were locked out that we started to get some indication of what the real issues were, and that was that the union wanted the City to keep its promises from the last labour negotiation: a new break room downtown and a proper one at the university. There were other things, of course, but the facilities promised to the drivers was the thing that was supposed to bankrupt the City if delivered.

That brings us to the subject matter of closed meetings at city council. Again, a necessary tool, but let’s look at this coming Monday’s agenda. One item deals with an Ontario Municipal Board hearing, the results of which will eventually be made public anyway. Another has to do with an agreement between the City and Metrolinx, the company that operates GO Transit. The big one though is a discussion of the $2.6 million lost by solid waste resources last year, an item that will surely come up later in the agenda when the year end budget report is delivered. At the beginning of the meeting Mayor Cam Guthrie will tell those gathered that these items were discussed and direction was given to staff. That’s nice, what direction?

Let’s use what should be an innocuous example. Previously closed council meetings have had an agenda item about Guelph Storm negotiations, but fail to describe what’s being negotiated. The assumption is that this has to do with the OHL team leasing the Sleeman Centre in the future, but who knows for sure? The City could be  involved in player trades for all we know, it’s not likely, but nothing in the description “Guelph Storm negotiations” eliminates the possibility. Here, we’re talking about deliberations for a huge city facility and its primary tenant, but the people who help pay for the upkeep of that facility know nothing about it, even as some city councillors have said on the record that they would like to see a broader discussion about use of that facility.

I’m sure people in the know might read this and say that I “don’t get it.” Perhaps I don’t, although I have had board experience, I have had to discuss delicate things will colleagues in camera, and that’s why I know that how you handle in-camera is almost as important as what goes on in-camera. Let’s not forget that there are a lot of eyes watching City Hall looking for any and all signs of conspiracy and cover-up. That now infamous blog post to be discussed on Monday began innocently enough with me trying to put a cork in that kind of speculating about the January 25 meeting. It didn’t work out so good.

Now I’m not expecting the Mayor to come out and give a blow-by-blow of who said what, but there has to be a happy medium between that and a no comment comment like “we gave staff direction.” In fact, the attitude of City Hall on the whole seems to be to prioritize caution over transparency. That’s not to imply conspiracy, but when the Mayor himself has to issue a statement asking citizens not to turn city staff into punching bags, it’s not so hard to see why City Hall might have a siege mentality. A government boogeyman being the cause of all our ills is an easy sell after all.

Yet the solution is just as simple, let’s have a little less discussion behind closed doors and a little more discussion in the open council chamber. Active and engaged citizens will enjoy being even better informed, and those that see it all as one big conspiracy to keep us in the dark will have one less thing to complain about. In a democracy, the sharing of information is vital, and if information can’t be shared, we need a thorough and logical explanation as to why it cannot be shared.

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