Saturday, October 14, 2017

Letter: Council transparency compared

Jonathan Skrimshire - A week ago, in these pages, I shared my concerns regarding Pincher Creek Town Council's overenthusiastic embrace of the power to close meetings to the public and presented the results of a review I performed in late May, quantifying Council's use of in camera meetings over the first five months of this year. I have since done a substantial amount of additional research in an attempt to compare Council's performance in this area to that of other Councils.

Despite being a matter of concern in a significant number of communities, there is a surprising dearth of readily available data on local governments' use of in camera meetings. One source of reliable data I managed to locate is the Calgary Council Tracker report. A project of the Calgary-based Manning Centre, the Council Tracker provides a detailed view of attendance, voting patterns and the amount of time allocated to public and in camera discussion by Calgary City Council. 

Over the course of the 2009-2013 term, Calgary City Council spent 81% of their meeting time in open public session; 19% was spent in camera, in deliberations closed to the public. Over the 2013-2017 term, they spent 76.3% of their time in public session; 23.7% was spent in closed meetings.

These figures provide two firm data points on the use of in camera meetings by a municipal government. But for obvious reasons, the behaviour of Calgary City Council is not the most appropriate point of reference for assessing the performance of our local Council.

I was unable to find any comparable analysis addressing the behaviour of a small town council, so to provide a more relevant set of comparative data I conducted a complete review of the meeting minutes for the Council of the Town of Fort Macleod, a neighbouring community of similar size and composition. The results of this exercise were both educational and eye-opening.

Over the five month period January 1 through May 31, 2017, the Council of the Town of Fort Macleod spent 85.5% of their meeting time in open public session; 14.5% of their time was spent in camera, in deliberations closed to the public.

The following is a complete chronologically ordered list of items subjected to in camera treatment by the Town Council of Fort Macleod during this interval:

2) Personnel (undisclosed)
3) Land (undisclosed)
4) CAO employment contract
5) Management audit letter
6) Personnel (undisclosed)
7) Empress Theatre
8) Land sale (undisclosed)
9) Land sale (undisclosed)

Over the same time period, the Council of the Town of Pincher Creek spent 46.5% of their meeting time in open public session; 53.5% was spent in camera, in deliberations closed to the public.

Below is the complete list of items subjected to in camera treatment by the Council of the Town of Pincher Creek:

1) Consultant proposal for Community Hall and Agricultural Building
2) Regional water intake
3) Lease agreement (undisclosed)
4) Northeast area structural plan
5) Planning / Marijuana regulations
6) Hillcrest Meadows plan review
7) Habitat for Humanity
8) Emergency Services Commission agreement
9) Veterans Street local improvement plan
10) Plan 3818GB dimension assessment and ownership
11) Medically at risk drivers
12) Daycare lease agreement
13) Lease agreement 5-7-2-9-W4 and Plan 8511150 Block 1 Lot 1
14) Market value assessment Plan 8811625 Block C Lot 7
15) Transportation proposal
16) Wildfire mitigation strategy
17) Curling Club insurance
18) Transit program and planning
19) Lease review Plan 5314JK Block 1
20) Oldman River Services Commission
21) Emergency Plan review
22) Castle Park
23) Lease agreement 5-7-29-W4 and Plan 8511150 Block 1 Lot 1
24) Lease agreement Joe's Weight Room
25) Vacant lot marketing
26) MOA Alberta Transportation
27) Cemetery agreement
28) Municipal Subdivision Development Appeal Board appointment
30) Highway 6 proposed access
31) Optimist Wind Energy proposal
32) Northeast industrial area development
33) Municipal emergency plan
34) RCMP Sergeant Mark Harrison
35) Oldman River Regional Services Commission
36) Wastewater treatment lagoon upgrades
37) Alberta Transportation MOA Green TRIP funding
38) Amended Humane Society operating agreement
39) Alberta Transportation MOA Green TRIP funding
40) MARD pilot project
41) Housing authority
42) Allied Arts Council lease agreement
43) Municipal emergency plan
44) Pincher Creek Humane Society services agreement
45) Financial (undisclosed)
46) Land improvement tax bylaw 1619-17
47) Oldman River Regional Services Commission
48) Crestview Lodge fire lane access
49) Alberta Transportation MOA - Green TRIP funding
50) Municipal emergency plan
51) Asphalt crushing 2017
52) Optimist Wind Energy solar proposal
53) Optimist Wind Energy delegation
54) Optimist Wind Energy lease agreement amendments
55) Oldman River Regional Services Commission
56) Draft Handi Bus agreement
57) Land availability Roll #0600500
58) Local improvement tax bylaw 1619-17
59) Curling rink location and sport field development
60) Alberta Rural Development Network funding proposal
61) Personnel (undisclosed)
62) Contract update (undisclosed)
63) Municipal Subdivision and Development Appeal Board appointment
64) Local improvement plan consideration
65) Water spray park project award

The disparity revealed by this comparison is impossible to ignore. Both in terms of the percentage of time spent and the number of items treated, Pincher Creek Town Council's use of in camera meetings vastly exceeds that of our neighbouring community.

Council of the Town of Fort Macleod spends, on average, a little under 10 minutes out of every hour in discussions closed to the public. Calgary City Council spends a little under 15 minutes of each hour. Pincher Creek Town Council spends over 30 minutes of each hour. 

The extraordinary laundry list of 65 items subjected to in camera treatment by Pincher Creek Council over the study period is particularly revealing. In sheer magnitude it is roughly equivalent to the number of in camera items handled by Calgary City Council in an average five month period (see Note 4) — and Calgary City Council is a body that meets hundreds of hours a year and that must address the enormous range of issues arising from the governance of a city of over a million people.

There is clearly something very wrong with this picture. And I believe the residents of this community need to take a long hard look at the way Council has been employing the power to close meetings to the public. It isn't normal. It isn't reasonable. And it isn't acceptable.

As the evidence above demonstrates, it is entirely possible for a municipal council, be it that of a large city or a small town, to conduct the majority of its business in public while satisfying the requirements under the Municipal Government Act and the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act to shield certain specific forms of sensitive information from public view. I could provide a detailed discussion of the relevant sections of those pieces of legislation but it would be somewhat beside the point. Because this is not primarily a question of law. It is a question of the judgement and priorities of the people who must interpret and apply the law.

The more I investigate this issue, the more convinced I become that there is something seriously amiss here in Pincher Creek. I have said this before and I will say it again: This is not what open, transparent government looks like. And I am publicly calling upon all candidates for council to confront this issue. No matter what the outcome of the forthcoming municipal election, this longstanding pattern of closed door council meetings must end.

Jonathan Skrimshire 
Pincher Creek


Note 1) The data presented above were derived from official meeting minutes provided by the Town of Pincher Creek and the Town of Fort Macleod, and from the Calgary Council Tracker report, Manning Foundation.

Note 2) The selection of the interval January 1 through May 31, 2017, is not in any respect an effort to cherry-pick data. In reviewing the records from the Town of Fort Macleod I restricted my efforts to the time interval for which I already had detailed results on the performance of the Pincher Creek Council.  As part of this exercise, I inspected the records from a substantial number of meetings randomly selected from other time periods. I found nothing to suggest that the data presented above are anomalous. Although a longer sample period would clearly be preferable, I believe it is safe to accept these data as broadly representative of long term behaviour.

Note 3) Due to errors and inconsistencies in the time information recorded in the minutes, the Fort Macleod Council meeting of April 24 was removed from the data set for the purpose of the percentage calculations. The in camera item from that meeting is, however, included in the list of materials subjected to in camera treatment.

Note 4) Over the four year term 2013-2017 Calgary City Council addressed 748 items in camera (source: Calgary Council Tracker report, Manning Foundation). On a pro-rated basis, this corresponds to 78 items over a five month period.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for taking the time to comment. Comments are moderated before being published. Please be civil.

Infinite Scroll