Secrecy at city hall leaves residents in the cold

Job number one for the new city council to be sworn in on November 1: open up city hall to the public.

And a related job for the rest of us in the last phase of the campaign: demand that the candidates commit to openness and transparency, particularly on key decisions that affect their city and their neighbourhoods.

Of course they may say they know all this, but once they get inside the city hall bubble, they are often seduced, one step at a time, by what the mayor herself finally admitted is “a city hall led process rather than a citizen led process.”

Among other key issues, this election revolves around a city council and administration that make too many decisions on their own, behind closed doors, and then involve or inform the public after the fact, if at all.

Irony lives in Victoria: Mayor Helps insisted on making one of these ad hoc decisions through a committee–the City Family–that was formed at a secret council meeting. The statue of Sir John A was removed because First Nations people felt uncomfortable walking by the monument as they entered city hall.

Can she be blind to the reality that many other people feel discomfort as they enter city hall because they feel the game is stacked against them?

On the development front, by the time residents begin to understand the arcane rules around a new project that threatens to disrupt their neighborhood, the important meetings have already been held, the key decisions made, and only some minor details left to final deal-making with the community.

The same can be said for the new bike lanes: what should have been a big win for the city, offering safety for cyclists, turned into another squabble due to a bungled consultation process and a rushed decision, a failure to integrate the separated lanes with the needs of other road users and the businesses on these streets.

 

When The Record was compiling the statistics for our Voting Record table, we came across other disturbing tendencies beside some members of council voting for nearly every major development. Time and again, we found motions similar to this:

It was moved by Councillor Coleman, seconded by Councillor Lucas, that Council convene a closed meeting, carried unanimously.

Last year alone, city council met behind closed doors 34 times. The ultimate Catch 22 is that because these meetings were secret, in many cases we can’t find out what was discussed.

After ten of these meetings in 2017, some times many months later, council decided to report back on the outcome of what was decided at these private sessions. Among the items revealed was a review of the city’s animal control service (kept secret for eight months) and yes, the vaguely defined Witness Reconciliation Program that made the call on removing the statue, later endorsed by council in a rushed decision.

People who believe in open government, which should be all of us, might instinctively feel that 34 closed door meetings a year are way too many.

Some are about legal issues, land purchase or personnel matters. But when personnel involves the departure of the city manager, the public has the right to know why it happened and if the city is addressing the issues that led to his leaving. City manager Jason Johnson departed under a veil of secrecy a year ago with 12 months’ severance of $274,999 salary.

By keeping the details secret, politicians shield themselves from criticism of their own conduct in the hiring, managing and the departure of the senior employee at the city.

Yes, employees are entitled to privacy, but someone as powerful as the city manager, the top bureaucrat at city hall, has to expect scrutiny of his conduct, which includes the terms of his leaving.

And then there’s the Johnson Street Bridge, years behind schedule and at least $40 million over budget. Councillor Geoff Young says the trouble began brewing in the previous term of office, partly because council held too many meetings behind closed doors to discuss the project.

So the next time you see Young, tell him: vote for fewer secret meetings.

The simple fact is, sunlight is the best disinfectant and the people of this city can be trusted with information about projects and decisions that affect them. But more than that: their ideas will often improve the options being considered and lead them to support the final decision–because they were heard.

But the closed council meetings are only part of the problem, maybe the smaller part.

There is a sense of collaboration between city hall and developers and other special interests, often resulting in projects that are against the interests of the affected communities. Local community plans, laboured over painstakingly by residents for months and years, are ignored in favour of new building projects that go against these plans. Some other policy that residents were unaware of takes precedence and these projects get pushed along the track to approval at meetings with developers.

An example is the new project rising out of the ground at the old St. Andrew’s school site on Pandora like a wall of development, with minimal setbacks, totally out of context with the neighbourhood around it. It occupies much of the block from Vancouver to Cook Street and nearly reaches into the small park and playground on Mason Street called Franklin Green. Neighbours say two mature poplars on the park border were cut down and some smaller cedars may also be threatened. The area is called North Park, but the City seems to be busy shaving some of the park out of the north.

New development crushes against Franklin Green Park on Mason Street

“The developer put forward a design that didn’t fit into the neighbourhood at all and we spent three years trying to make something 10% better,” said Jenny Farkas, president of the North Park Neighbourhood Association.

It all amounts to development at the expense of communities and little accomplished to solve the city’s housing affordability crisis. It makes you wonder what the heck is going on–but you can’t find out because it’s behind closed doors.