Friday, December 01, 2006

Winds of change...

or a westward shift from the Lou Romano treatment facility? Only time will tell.
End secrecy, Francis says - Mayor urges city to abandon confidentiality clauses (subscription only)
But Francis said disclosing that information could put the municipality at risk of legal action.

"You have tenants that have come forward and said 'we're prepared to lease space, but we don't want our business to be public,'" Francis said. "The arguments the tenants made were based on the fact that, 'if we're going to do business with the city and we're leasing space, we don't want the competition to know what our expenses are.'"

Call me crazy, but I don't exactly get a warm fuzzy feeling when I read this. The City of Windsor cited this same arguement in trying to refuse releasing the city's deal with the Keg restaurant. In a Machiavellian twist one could only find in Windsor, the Information Commissioner revealed that the confidentiality clause was at the city's behest and not the Keg's.

the affected party stated that:
…the commercial agreement was negotiated in confidence at the request of the City. The City has not to this day consented to the disclosure of any parking related information.
Agreements aside, another issue that seems to be re-occuring relates to matters discussed/decided at In-Camera meetings. There is no doubt that a body such as Windsor Council requires in-camera meeting to discuss numerous issues (personnel, legal, financial etc), but at some point, the requirement for secrecy ends for many of these matters. The problem is that we never seem to hear about such items unless a Councillor asks specific questions or local media manages to find out details.

Several examples off the top of my head:

1. Yesterday's revelation that the City purchased land in the east end for $1 million dollars. The decision to purchase was made at an in-camera meeting on the 24th of July. The article states that the land was "recently" purchased. A proactive City, committed to open and accountable government, would have released these details on the day of closure. Instead we're left wondering. Did this deal close just before the recent election or just after?

2. The City settled a lawsuit in April with an employee in former Mayor Mike Hurst's office. While the actual details of the settlement are most likely confidential, the fact that it was settled is not. Again, instead of a proactive release of information, we have to wait for the news to trickle out months later

3. From Councillor Alan Halberstadt's blog:

Last November 14th, Council passed my "sunshine bylaw" resolution directing the City Clerk to provide quarterly reports of these basic statistics. After a good deal of badgering on my part, the report finally appeared on the Communications Agenda last night (Oct. 23).
The report was not based on quarterly data, as directed, but summarized the period January to September 28, 2006. Twenty-nine (29) in camera meeting have taken place in that time with 137 items being considered during a total of 47 hours and 48 minutes. By comparison, thirty-four (34) open meetings were held with 430 items being considered during a total of 91 minutes and 25 minutes.
Almost a year to produce a report at Council's direction, and even then, the report produced was not what was required. Another item in the same blog:
Meanwhile, I am still waiting for a public report, which I originally requested, on an in camera meeting Council had with border lawyer David Estrin last month. Council was given a legal opinion by City Solicitor George Wilkki that this matter should remain largely confidential under solicitor-client privilege, since it could compromise the city in its ongoing border disputes with third parties.

Council has authorized a sizable amount of money to be spent on legal fees in this latest response to the enemies. You might remember that I have pushed for the public to be informed of the border legal and consulting costs in a timely fashion, and administration has committed to do so.

Mayor Francis has asked the legal department to put together a report for the public agenda on this matter, restricting the report to information that is not deemed to be compromising to the city's case. It will be interesting to see if this report finds its way onto the public agenda before the Nov. 13th election. It should
Did this report see the light of day before the election? Yes and no. No the report wasn't released prior to the election, but the information was released due to the persistent efforts of Alan.
During question period Monday, I was able to coax from the mayor the admission that declaring the amount of money authorized by Council in camera on Oct. 10th would not compromise the city. Da!<br>
I therefore felt comfortable releasing the $400,000 figure to the media after the meeting. Since a written report from administration and Estrin will not be forthcoming until after Monday's election, I also feel compelled to share with ratepayers some overview information on what this money is intended to be spent on.
Once again, the city's stance seems to be resistance instead of proactive.

I admit that there is a fine balance between the public's right to know and the secrecy required to conduct the city's affairs. The problem in Windsor is that there doesn't seem to be any balancing going on at all, simply secrecy. While this may only be perception instead of actual reality, it is a dangerous perception to have associated with the city.

The risk of embarrassment or criticism should not be the justification for secrecy of Municipal affairs. By the same token, critics such as myself must also acknowledge and encourage Municipal government when they are being open, regardless of the political cost. If we do not, then the urge to remain silent will continue to pervade our city's business.

In a case of coincidental timing I came across this report today via another blog:
Restoring Citizen Trust – The Heart of Accountability – establishing a political culture that reconnects with politicians and the public.(pdf)

Existing accountability mechanisms in Canada are out of date. For one thing, they assume that public involvement is limited to election times. But numerous studies show that citizens are “no longer content to go to the polls every four years or so and then give government a free hand” (Savoie, page 9). Part of having more trust is having more say.

Improved accountability won’t happen without improved transparency. It goes well beyond simply posting more information on government Web sites and publishing more reports. Transparency means the public has easily accessible, understandable and meaningful information that makes clear what is being achieved for society with public funds and where the gaps are. It also involves governments giving the public a role in determining what constitutes meaningful information and facilitating its use of that information to influence the policy process.