MacDuff’s Call: Tech can help access info, if gov’t is willing

Access to information

My years in governance provided me with my first serious foray into technology, especially at the city level, as cities are continually having to respond to the public’s need and right to access information relating to their community.

Whether it is building a wireless network system into city hall and the community, or the more recent work of the present council relating to the Open Government Portal, city councils will be continually tasked with keeping up with the latest technology to ensure they meet the public’s demand for access to information.

However, although technology gives citizens access to more information and simplifies services, I would argue that it does not necessarily mean technology will provide the transparency people want from their government. I believe that if government wants to hide something from us, it will.

We only need to refer back to the “triple deleting” e-mail fiasco that plagued the BC Liberals while in government, which the NDP had a hay day with until they, too, had their fingers rapped for the same practice in May of this year.

Another example of government withholding information, was recently highlighted in the report by former Federal Information Commissioner of Canada, Suzanne Legault, regarding the complaint lodged by the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre and advocacy group, Democracy Watch. The latter claimed the previous federal Conservative government was muzzling scientists.

She concluded, “The government of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper violated its own communications and transparency rules by muzzling federal scientists, and the Trudeau government has not made ‘firm commitments’ to fix the problem.”

While the aforementioned issue is not directly related to using technology, it highlights the fact that technological advancements used by government to inform the public are worthless, if government is selective in what it shares with its citizens, or uses it to hide information.

As far as municipal governments, the Community Charter, along with the Local Government Act, guide local government on how to go about their business, including what business can be conducted in closed meetings.

The categories of topics that “may” or “must” be discussed in closed meetings are contained within Section 90 (1) and 90 (2) of the Community Charter and in the “may” category, Section 90 (1), there is enough wriggle room for a council to move a “not quite closed” conversation behind closed doors, thus rendering the conversation void of public knowledge.

The only information that has to be posted for a closed agenda are the categories within the legislation that the topics being discussed fall under, so the public must rely on their council to exercise self-restraint, or for staff to apply firm guidance to the elected officials.

An example of a category in the “may” section of the Charter is the following: 90 (1) k: “negotiations and related discussions respecting the proposed provision of a municipal service that are at their preliminary stages and that, in the view of the council, could reasonably be expected to harm the interests of the municipality if they were held in public.”

If we reflect back on the homeless shelter debate in Maple Ridge, this category certainly provided council with the latitude to discuss that issue in a closed meeting, if they so chose.

However, as far as disclosing what is discussed in closed meetings, there are strong guidelines, through the Charter and the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act that guide disclosure, but they are heavily weighted on what may not be disclosed, in order to protect truly confidential and personal information.

Maple Ridge’s historical practice has been to adhere to the guidelines and disclose a limited description that meets the guidelines, by including it on the agenda of the public meeting closest to the conclusion of the business as an “information item” only.

I took a look at the last couple of years since the Mayor’s Open Government Report was adopted in 2016 and noticed that beginning in 2017, closed meetings are now reported on the website. That showed 21 closed meetings in 2017 and 14 so far for 2018, which means council is trending towards having as many closed meetings as public meetings.

None of this means that municipal council is doing anything wrong.

However, it is hard to trust government when there continues to be evidence at all levels that if their guidelines give them the latitude, politicians will hang themselves with it in an effort to conceal information or difficult conversations.

I believe governments have a lot of work to do ensuring the public’s discussions and related information is available.

After all, there is no point spending money on upgrading technology, so elected officials can declare open and transparent government, simply because the public can’t access what is being discussed behind closed doors, or being actively hidden.

Cheryl Ashlie is a former Maple Ridge school trustee, city councillor, constituency assistant and former citizen of the year.

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