To get good insightful answers, how the question is framed matters. I missed an opportunity on Thursday
Hamilton City Council is holding a hush-hush special closed-door Council meeting on “Monday, September 6, 2011” at 1:30pm.
(*UPDATE: The EA to Ward 3 Councillor Bernie Morelli confirms via Twitter that the meeting is on Tuesday at 1:30pm.) *
They will consider, in-camera, an “Offer of Settlement – O.M.B. – Chedoke Brow Lands.”
No other details, could be confirmed as City Hall did not send any notifications to the media or public and City Hall is closed for the weekend.
Instead, the City decided to post the agenda quietly within their website late Friday afternoon before the beginning of the long weekend. This decision meant that you, the citizens, are only learning of this by accident because someone outside City Hall noticed.
The usual procedure for special meetings of Council is the City Clerk sends an email to all media outlets when the meetings are announced. This did not happen today. **
(The Hamilton Spectator confirmed they had not receive any notification of the meeting either.)
The Ontario Municipal Act does not require active public notification of meetings held by municipalities. In fact, the Municipal Act isn’t entirely clear what constitutes a meeting.
The Friday afternoon smokescreen
The meeting agenda was posted at the end of the business day on Friday afternoon right before the beginning of the holiday weekend.
Dumping information at the end of business on the Friday preceding a long weekend is a time-honoured tradition of secretive government organizations who attempt to take advantage of the lack of journalists working to publish information that do not want widely known.
Coming as it is at the end of a week in which City Council was under heavy fire for secrecy and failure to disclose public meetings of the velodrome sub-committee, City Hall should-be mindful of the sensitivity among both the public and media to the appearance of secrecy.
Council already under investigation
City Council is currently under investigation by the Ontario Ombudsman for a breakfast meeting by Council’s NHL sub-committee with the Edmonton Oilers president last year.
The investigation was formally launch little over a month ago.
Both these events should be fresh in the minds of Councillors and senior City Officials.
The Friday afternoon miscommunications
Late last Friday afternoon, City Manager Chris Murray privately sent Council an update on the Ivor Wynne stadium renovation revealing the renovation was now a rebuild.
The report was not posted alongside the velodrome report on the city website. It only became public knowledge when I obtained a copy and posted it publicly.
Journalists watch for this behaviour – using the distraction of a major report with plenty of information to digest as a smoke screen to release other information that government officials do not want widely known.
These are not the only examples of important information that should be distributed widely to the public has been quietly hidden late on a Friday afternoon this summer.
Late afternoon on Friday July 15, Mr. Murray announced that he was suspending work on LRT to focus on all-day GO service. Mr. Murray left City Hall that day for vacation for a few weeks leaving citizens to read his statement “I have made a decision to suspend all current direct and indirect activities of the Light Rail Transit Initiative other than any work activities required to be completed under the agreement [with Metrolinx].” and understand this to mean what it said.
Upon returning from vacation, Mr. Murray suggested citizens read his email again to understand what he really meant. The experience was chalked up to a miscommunication.
Not necessarily nefarious – but part of a pattern
The failure to tell of Monday or Tuesday’s Council meeting is not necessarily nefarious – could be yet another case of poor communication by senior City Officials and Council.
Let’s assume that it is merely poor communication. This raises the question – what is Council going to do to end this practice of poor communication late on Friday afternoons?
It’s sure looking like a duck
The secrecy at City Hall is starting to walk like a duck, quack like a duck, it sure walks like a duck, and it’s starting to smell as bad as a duck that mistakenly slept in the pig’s pen.
Pretty soon, the media will have not other choice than to plainly call it a duck.
Secretive meetings not just a Hamilton problem
Dr. Ann Cavoukian, the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, wrote an extensive report on the problem of closed-door and secretive meetings by Ontario municipalities in 2003. In the report, entitled “Making Municipal Government More Accountable: The Need for an Open Meetings Law in Ontario,” Dr. Cavoukian called on the provincial government to amend the Municipal Act to:
- provide a clear, precise and practical definition of a meeting;
- require municipalities to give the public proper and adequate advance notice of each council and board meeting;
- prohibit councils and boards from considering business not included on a published notice;
- give the public a legal right to complain if it feels that open meetings rules have not been followed;
- establish an efficient and accessible oversight system, with a body responsible for investigating complaints and resolving disputes; and
- provide remedies and penalties if the law has been breached.
Thus far, the provincial government has not acted on the report.
Eager politicians will be knocking on your door during the next five weeks asking for your vote in the provincial election. Ask them not what they think of Open Government (like lower taxes, they’ll tell you they are in favour) but what they intend to actually do to make Open Government a reality.
Contact your City Councillor and ask them what steps they are taking to address the pattern of “miscommunication” at City Hall.
Most of all, stay involved.