On Wednesday, Halifax council announced the appointment of our first ever auditor general. Buried in the PR boilerplate was this ironically unintended wiffle-ball of wisdom from chief bureaucrat Dan English: “Independence and transparency,” he declared, “are key to enhancing public confidence in the municipal service delivery system.”
Didn’t city fathers couple last winter’s motion to hire an auditor general—a new position required by provincial legislation to provide a much-needed public check on municipal spending—with a weasel request to change the city’s charter to let it hold secret meetings to discuss any findings the auditor general might make that could have “the potential to expose the organization to a threat or risk?”
Which is to say any findings.
Now that’s transparency.
Nova Scotia’s Municipal Government Act says all council and committee meetings “are open to the public… except as otherwise provided in this Section.”
But our council has been busy building its own secrecy superhighway through that supposedly narrow footpath of legislated exceptions.
Commonwealth Games? Secret.
The sewage mess? Close your eyes. Hold your nose. Top secret.
On Tuesday, councillors began their too-routine closed-door deliberations at 10:30 a.m. Supposedly—the meetings are secret, after all—they secretly laboured through lunch and many hours more. A full seven hours after they started, councillors finally broke for 45 minutes to refresh themselves and begin their much shorter public meeting.
What did councillors spend so many hours discussing in private?
Some of it we know because they then quietly passed un-debated motions in public to formally do what they had privately decided already. Like appealing the court decision to award $81,000 to a Preston man who had to live next to a stinky city sewage treatment for a decade. That, of course, involved legal strategy, so discussing it in camera is a legitimate exception.
But what about the decision to extend the terms of two citizen appointees to the Halifax International Airport Authority Board? Or increase the number of councillors on the advisory board for the 2011 Federation of Canadian Municipalities conference?
Should those be hush hush?
And what other public business did councillors discuss privately that we still don’t know about? More than we know.
Perhaps it’s time our elected officials discussed—in public—what is reasonable to discuss in private. And what is not.
From Halifax Metro: September 11, 2009
Stephen Kimber, the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of King’s College, is the author of eight books. He’s been writing about local politics for more years than he can remember.