Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Secrecy and conflicts of interest too evident in municipal politics

Marin cited the “egregious” example of council for the Township of Leeds and the Thousand Islands which attempted to hide discussion of a 60-per-cent raise for its members.

“That’s the kind of thing you just can’t make up,” he said.
(From Wendy Gillis' piece "Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin says municipalities 'shockingly secretive'" in Toronto Star, October 30, 2012, excerpted below)
Having spent fifteen years as a city hall reporter in a Northern Ontario town, I was able to witness many of the public debates over both large and minor issues that come before municipal councils. There were also, no doubt, many "in camera" meetings to which I was neither invited nor about which was I told. However, there are more complexities to this story than would be resolved by a fine, or public censure.
First, the media has to play a more aggressive role in ferreting out any hint of a proposal from any responsible source, and bring it to the public's attention, sometimes even starting with a rumour that has to be chased down. There is a tendency in a community for reporters to be on a "too friendly" basis with municipal politicians, partly to preserve "sources" for future stories, and partly to keep a mask of community peace and unity on the proceedings, so that "people will want to do business here"...as the cliche argument goes.
Second, the people of each town and city have a civic duty and responsibility to engage their publicly elected representatives who, after all, have no crystal ball from which to elicit answers to the city's problems, issues, including the normal five-year plans spelling out the "direction" of the city's growth requiring infrastructure. They are often flying by the 'seat of their pants' with a steady eye on their own re-election, the primary goal of too many politicians.
Third, there is a clear and demonstrable need for city officials to guide their political operatives in the clear and persuasive avoidance of any appearance of conflict of interest. Too many stories in too many towns and cities smell of 'undue influence' by certain rumoured business operatives on civic projects, including their design, and especially their location.
Politicians, as the construction probe in Quebec demonstrates too painfully, too often have their hands out for "bribes" in many forms including cash, but also some less obvious pay-offs for decisions the roots and relationships of which will never be uncovered, if they have their way.
Land development and land developers know all of the "achilles heels" of their local elected representatives and also those of the appointed members, for example, of the municipal planning boards, whose decisions affect the value of land, including those lands held by specific developers.
I once wrote a column pointing out the appearance of a conflict of interest when one real estate agent served as the Chair of the Economic Development Board, in which capacity he would have access to all inquiries for land that would come to the municipality, putting him in a position of a conflict, since, in his professional capacity, he would then be free to sell city-owned land to a prospective client.
There was no evidence that this individual had abused his position, but clearly, the potential of such abuse was clear and apparent.
And it is the conflict of interest question that concerns me as much as the "in camera meetings" to which the Ombudsman refers, in the pursuit of respect and legitimacy for municipal political operations. Should any town councillor wish to avoid any criticism for meeting in private, s/he could easily hold that meeting "on line" without worrying about those digital records being ferreted out by an industrious reporter.
Some meetings have to be "in confidence" and "in camera" to prevent the speculation that would occur should a proposed development's preference for a specific block of land become public, driving up the price of that land. However, such meetings could and should also be conducted by legal representatives, both of the city government and of the developer, in order to preserve that confidentiality, as well as the public respect and trust in the political system.
It is the public's trust in and respect for both the individuals who are elected and appointed to civic office and the system to which they are elected that must be maintained and enhanced, and every effort to assure accountability and transparency, in the real sense of those words, is worth both the cost and the effort.
And we all share in the pursuit of that legitimate goal.
Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin says municipalities 'shockingly secretive'
By Wendy Gillis, Toronto Star, October 30, 2012
Ontario ombudsman André Marin says the province must put “some teeth” into its government transparency legislation by penalizing municipal councils which break open meeting laws.

Saying “shocking secrecy” exists in some of Ontario’s 444 municipalities, Marin said the government should consider prosecuting councillors and making them face fines or jail time for holding secret meetings.
“Right now, municipal councils — some of them at least — play loose with the rules because there are no consequences,” he said. “If there was a consequence, such as a fine or imprisonment, councillors would think twice about breaking those rules.”
On Tuesday, Marin released his first annual report detailing his office’s investigations into violations of the so-called “Sunshine law” — provincial legislation requiring municipalities to hold open meetings except in select circumstances.
Since 2008, any Ontario citizen has been able to request a probe into a meeting believed to have been improperly closed to the public. Marin’s office — which has jurisdiction in 191 of Ontario’s 444 municipalities — has received more than 500 complaints.
His office found 45 violations between April 2011 and September 2012, including in Hamilton, Amherstburg, Midland and Elliot Lake.
Marin does not have jurisdiction in Toronto, because the city has its own ombudsman, Fiona Crean.
Marin cited the “egregious” example of council for the Township of Leeds and the Thousand Islands which attempted to hide discussion of a 60-per-cent raise for its members.
“That’s the kind of thing you just can’t make up,” he said.
The office also investigated a complaint that three Hamilton councillors from the city’s NHL proposal committee violated the open meeting rules when they met for breakfast with a local hockey coach and the president of the Edmonton Oilers in January 2011.
While ruling the meeting did not break any laws, councillors should “be cautious about such gatherings, because they naturally attract suspicion and conjecture,” says the report.
Some of the worst offenders were also “defiant in the face of public complaints,” Marin said. London councillors, for example, were “obsessed” with obtaining the names of complainants so they could “face their accusers,” he said.
In Sudbury, only three of 13 councillors agreed to be interviewed by the office about secret meetings. The remaining said they wouldn’t proceed without the city’s solicitor.
“It was the worst failure to co-operate I have seen,” Marin says in the report.
Asked to respond to the pushback seen in Toronto against ombudsman Crean and other city watchdogs, Marin said the city was at an important “juncture.”
It will either have to “learn to work with its ombudsman office or explore other options,” such as outsourcing to his office, though he said he was not advocating for that,
“But of course, we’re located across from city hall . . . this would be a stone’s throw. If city council were to ask me to consider it, I’d certainly consider it.”



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