Openness must be the election topic on everyone's lips

First published: October 19, 2006

While voters may debate which issues are most important for candidates to address before the municipal election next month, one should be on everyone’s lips: openness. If there is a single issue universal to all councils, it is the slow erosion of the public’s rights and the politicians’ distain for citizens.

Since the last election, when complaints were made about the openness of council and the transparency of decision-making, the situation has become worse. In some cases, there are minor differences, but in others, the devolution of the public’s rights are seriously hurt.

Earlier this year, Port Hope council started meeting one hour earlier, a suggestion made by Councillor Karen O’ Hara. Great idea, says Councillor Jeff Lees. He can get home a bit earlier to be with family. And, while it may not seem like a big deal, it is punitive. For citizen working until 6 p.m., they are penalized. With a meeting starting at 7 p.m., people have time to go home, eat a meal and see their family before having to be in the council chamber. Deputy Mayor Linda Thompson was the only politician who spoke against the change.

But, it was the petitions and delegations rules that got hammered in an overhaul of the procedural bylaw back in March 2005. Changes were proposed after Mayor Rick Austin publicly complained about presenters. It wasn’t the first time Port Hope council grumbled. In June 2004, O’Hara argued delegations should only be allowed to make one point, no more. Austin mused that council was “too open”. Lees said council meetings were not the stage for delegations.

“This isn’t the place to debate the facts,” he said, adding council business should take precedent.

Even, Thompson said too much time was being taken up by delegations.

So now, the public must provide a written presentation in advance by Thursday before a council meeting – a full five days ahead. If that is not bad enough, the person gets 10 minutes and there is a limit of five delegations per meeting.

Not to be outdone, Cobourg council has similar constrictive rules. In October 2005, Deputy Mayor Bob Spooner drafted a draconian set of changes to choke off citizen participation. He proposed limits on the number of people speaking on a specific topic and demanded written presentations. When it came before council, Councillors Gil Brocanier, Lloyd Williams and Bill MacDonald would not support it. Spooner was surprised, saying he solicited input prior to the council meeting, but did not receive much response, insinuating the councillors were grandstanding. Still, he was successful getting a fixed deadline for written submissions before a council meeting with no objection, including a deafening silence from Mayor Peter Delanty.

While this may seem trivial, it is not. Democracy is based on the principle of accessibility by all to have a say in civic affairs. To make citizens type out their presentation is just adding layer of bureaucracy. Also, for those who are less literate or find difficulty expressing themselves in writing, it is a barrier to a fundamental civic right.

This deterioration is not unique to municipal councils. School board trustees are some of the worst offenders. Look at the school closing policy at the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board to see how masterfully the public’s rights can be mauled. The closure process is done with heartless precision with a timeline that would make any military general blush. The policies drastically limit community participation to three meetings (four if you count a full board meeting in the community) and it is tightly controlled. Our own trustee, Gord Gilchrist, tried to get the board to reduce the number. In two separate statements in the press, he called for a shorter process. Only a procedural policy prevented him from getting his way.

The Ad Hoc Review Committee, consisting of supervisors, trustees and members of the school council drive the process. Questions from the public are limited to the end of the agenda and there are only three meetings to review reports. And, the committee does not need to reply to any submissions or representation in writing or at all.

But, it is not just having to write a submission or have one’s time limited that is so upsetting. It is the treatment the presenters are given that is equally disturbing. Often, citizen activists, people who appear regularly before these governing bodies, are handled with distain. Often, they are vilified for trying to exercise their democratic rights. Politicians ignore them by not asking questions or responding to the presentations. There are exceptions, but they are rare. No wonder more citizens don’t become involved or stand up when they feel something is wrong. Who would want to be humiliated to such an extent?

Maybe even more importantly, we do not see a positive result from citizen’s input. Again, there are a few examples where a laneway is saved or resident catches a break. But many times, people make huge sacrifices, work long hours, and organize friends and neighbours, only to be ignored. The decisions are made well before the gavel is dropped and the public is included as a matter of process, not because anyone truly wants to engage in building a public consensus.

These are just a few examples. Citizens in the townships can tell many of their own tales and so could parents with kids in the separate school board.

So, it comes down to this: do voters want to support those who would strip us of our democratic rights? The record is clear. And, despite what the campaign literature will tell you or the lame defenses given at the candidate debates, the record stands. The policies exist. The behaviour is clear. With a four-year term in office, it is time to turf those who fail the democratic test. Let’s send a definitive message to the next council we will not accept this any longer.

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