In camera, out of my mind
By Bill Phillips
Why is it that the City can seek public input on how to improve its website but not seek public input how to be more “open and transparent?”
Like the proverbial fox in the henhouse, Council decided Monday that the release of information associated with in camera meetings was just fine. “If isn’t broke, don’t fix it,” was the refrain. At least Coun. Garth Frizzell had the wherewithal to state that while the status quo is OK, there is room for improvement.
Council decided, however, that, at least for the foreseeable future, the status quo is fine largely because it’s working for City Council and City staff. No one at Monday’s meeting even hinted at or, in a momentary lapse of reason, wondered whether the status quo is working for the public.
Council does deserve credit for at least bringing the issue forward, but to then decide to do nothing, is disappointing.
How it works now is the City will post that it is having a closed-door session. As to the reason they’re getting away from the public eye, that’s never divulged other than to quote the section of the Community Charter which outlines why things should go private. The only reason to go in camera is to deal with either personnel, legal, or land issues.
Decisions made in an in camera session are supposed to be passed at an open public meeting but Councils have found a way around that by simply adopting the recommendation coming out of the meeting, which no one other than those around the council table are privy to. It’s done in an open public meeting, but no one knows what has been passed.
While that works for Council, who along with staff know what’s being voted on, it doesn’t fit the bill for that “open and transparent” government we keep hearing about because the public is kept in the dark.
No one is arguing that everything the City does must be done in an open public meeting. There are certainly issues that need to be discussed privately.
However, for decades governments far and wide have used the ‘in camera’ excuse to move contentious or controversial debates out of the public eye (for example; that councillor who doesn’t want his neighbours to know he voted in favour of that development no one wants).
When discussing this Monday, Council got mired down in minutiae. The jaw-dropping moment was when Coun. Brian Skakun had it confirmed that one proposal from staff would require an extra full time person. Really? A full time person to take things out of in camera? Sign me up, I could use a job.
Council and staff completely missed the point. Other than a few die-hard city hall followers, no one really wants to know the blow-by-blow details of an in camera meeting. Most people realize in camera meetings are necessary.
What the public needs to know, and have confidence in, is that all items on an in camera meeting agenda are there for the right reasons.
On Monday, Council basically said “trust us.”
Better disclosure of what’s on an in camera agenda would help and better disclosure of items coming out of in camera would also help. That shouldn’t be too tough to handle.
Council not only has to say everything is fine, they also have to be able to show it.
Bill Phillips is a freelance columnist living in Prince George. He was the winner of the 2009 Best Editorial award at the British Columbia/Yukon Community Newspaper Association’s Ma Murray awards, in 2007 he won the association’s Best Columnist award. In 2004, he placed third in the Canadian Community Newspaper best columnist category and, in 2003, placed second. He can be reached at email@example.com
In this column, Bill Phillips originally mentioned “Council holds between 50 and 70 in camera meetings per year.” It is a statement based on an inaccurate interpretation of a comment Councillor Frizzell made during the discussion at Council. What Coun. Frizzell said, was that there were 50-70 in camera items per year, not 50-70 in camera meetings. In fact, over the past three years, there have been 19 such meetings in 2013, fifteen in 2014, and 16 in 2015.
Bill’s inaccurate reference has been removed from this column. 250News apologizes for the error.
-Elaine Macdonald Meisner.