One of the great buzz words in recent elections at the municipal level has been “transparency”. Every candidate seems to promise that, should they be elected, there would be more transparency on council and in municipal government. After a few elections, it is very hard to see (pun intended) where this new transparency exists.
Since the current council came into power four years ago, nothing has actually changed in the way of promoting transparency in how they operate. While we now have the privilege and thrill of being able to actually watch Council meetings on-line, and enjoy each and every exciting moment of drama and the cut and thrust of intelligent debate, the sharing of visionary ideas and plans, one thing is lacking. There is no exciting moment of drama, nor the cut and thrust of intelligent debate, the sharing of visionary ideas and plans.
In fact, there have been more meetings closed to the public than ever before. The number of issues on which meetings can be thus closed has been increased, albeit not at the initiative of this council. Just a thought here: what has been introduced at the initiative of this council? Answers are welcome and deeply longed for.
Well, then, what is meant by transparency in the context of municipal politics? Are we, the residents, voters, citizens of North Grenville more informed about municipal governance, about how decisions are being made, or even about what decisions are being made? There are a number of areas where transparency could be increased, if there was a desire on the part of council and senior staff to do so.
The Municipal Act sets clear limits on what kind of information can be shared with the general public, and most of those limits are understandable. If the municipality is engaged in deciding on which company to award a contract for something, then it makes no business sense to let us all into the deliberations and thereby disarm the bureaucrats in their negotiations. If matters concerning personal matters relating to staff members are being discussed, then they have a certain right to confidentiality.
But this confidentiality has been taken to an alarming length recently, even in the matter of staff. In the recent past, North Grenville has parted company with a number of senior and junior staff, including a Director of Planning and a Treasurer. No explanation was given for these departures, in spite of the fact that serious questions had been raised about the activities and behaviour of the former official. It is unfair, both to the individuals involved, and especially to the citizens who paid their salaries, to refuse to explain the circumstances under which they left.
It is one thing to respect personal privacy and confidentiality: but it is quite another to simply refuse to comment in any way on the departures. Was there reason to dismiss officials, or did they depart on their own accord? If there were reasons, what was the cost to taxpayers, either in their activities leading to dismissal, or in severance payments made when they left? Are there on-going financial implications to their time with the municipality, implications that we taxpayers will be facing in the future?
The on-going experience of this kind of issue in Merrickville-Wolford is a classic example of the matter. A CAO is hired, and then placed on administrative leave within eighteen months. An inquiry is established and reports. At the same time, the CAO announces his resignation, giving as his reason a job offer elsewhere in an unnamed municipality. What are residents to make of this? Rumours surround these sudden departures, rumours which may be unfair to the officials concerned. But to simply ignore these legitimate questions put forward by residents is unfair to everyone. The fact that these are individuals earning over $100,000 per year in taxpayers money is an important factor here. There must be some accountability to residents, some explanation, however brief and without prejudice to all it may be.
When so many senior staffers leave any municipality in a short time, it has to be asked what leads to this exodus. Is it the corporate atmosphere, the unprofessional conduct of those leaving, the lure of a better-paid position elsewhere? In the absence of accountability and explanations, rumours, however unfair or inaccurate, will proliferate. This is not good for any community.
It is totally understandable that privacy is preserved during any investigation or inquiry. It is less understandable that, once decisions are taken and people leave, that no further mention is ever made by municipal officials or councils, no explanation proffered to the community, to explain what has happened. Have people been paid off to prevent litigation? Is there an innocent explanation for their departure? If so, in either case, we have a right to know. Surely this is possible without violating any of the precious clauses of the Municipal Act?
As we head into the next election, watch out for that word “transparency”, and be sure to ask what, precisely and in detail, candidates actually mean by it, and how it will make a difference in the future. Nothing has changed since 2014: no increase in opportunities to ask questions and get answers from council and staff. No increase in the willingness of either to recognise the public’s right to know what’s being done on their behalf and with their taxes in these matters. How many court cases, OMB hearings, or pay-offs have involved this municipality over the past four years? How many are still going on? Now that is an actual threat to the democratic rights of the residents of North Grenville.