Two weeks ago, mayor Peter Kelly called to order the agendized 6pm meeting of the city council...at 3:15pm. Nearly the entire meeting was finished before it was scheduled to begin, so any member of the public who wanted to attend the meeting and had checked the meeting time to do so was shit out of luck.
I objected, of course, but city staff and councillors alike looked at me as if I was a crazy person. "The mayor can start a meeting whenever he wants," a staffer told me. "That's how we always do it," said a councillor.
There are some welcome exceptions--- councillor Jackie Barkhouse echoed my objections---but the contempt for the public and public access at city hall is palpable, which is the expected result of the professionalization of the political process. Once upon a time we celebrated the citizen-representative; today councillors think of themselves as a high-salaried corporate board of directors beholden to no one.
With 14 months to the next election, potential candidates for mayor and council should be placing public access to city hall as number one on a reform agenda. To that end, I'll submit the following Sunshine Ordinance for their consideration. This is not a particularly radical list---all of the proposals are already standard procedure in many cities across North America, but it would be the first step to bringing democracy back to city hall.
Meeting agendas: All government meetings shall be agendized, with supporting documentation, at least one week ahead of their scheduled time. With the exception of emergency matters, nothing should be added to an agenda after the agenda is published. There should be no gathering of council, such as Lunch and Learn or even awards ceremonies, that is not fully agendized and open to the public.
Public meetings: All government meetings should be open to the public, and every meeting should have time set aside specifically for the public to address their representatives about anything they want. No meeting should be held outside its agendized time. "Serial meetings," such as when the mayor individually polls councillors via phone or outside of a scheduled meeting, should be illegal.
Secret meetings: In-camera meetings are sometimes necessary, but every item discussed should be publicly agendized. Secret meetings should be videotaped. If council discusses something not on the public agenda, any councillor should have the right to inform the public about it. All documents prepared for secret meetings, all minutes, the videotape and the actions taken, should automatically become part of the public record six months after the meeting, unless council votes to extend that time for particular items. The auditor general should either be present at secret meetings or watch the videotape of them.
Public accounts: Every dollar spent by government should be public record. Just as the province does, the city should have a public accounting, posted at least annually on its website, listing every employee's salary and travel allowance, and every expenditure made. Public inquiries into any expenditure should be responded to quickly. All budget details should be posted on the website as well.
Contracts: All the terms of every public contract, including the term of the contract, the dollar amount and conditions, should be public record.
Campaign information: All campaign contributions should be reported to the city clerk's office within 24 hours of being received, and should be listed on the city's website immediately. Councillors should annually report all income, all property in HRM and all financial interests in companies doing business with the city.
Leadership: The new mayor should immediately upon taking office state that a new age of public access and accountability has come to Halifax. The default position should be that information is public and that city hall is welcoming to the citizenry.
I don't mean for this list to be exhaustive; readers will no doubt have lots of other great ideas---you can post them as comments to this editorial at thecoast.ca/editorial.
Again, lots of cities already have such provisions and operate just fine. It's really unfortunate that Halifax officials can't simply adopt modern attitudes about public access all on their own, and that we instead have to force the issue via election campaigns, but such is the city we live in.
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