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Market Squared: Let’s have a chamber of fewer secrets

If City Hall is indeed always looking at ways to improve communications and oversight with its citizens, then I think it begins with more talking on camera and less talking in camera

City Hall’s got secrets. No, not the scary kind like backroom deals, cost cutting, or human sacrifice or anything, but there’s stuff for one legitimate reason or another that they don’t share with the general public. It’s not necessarily malicious because the city is a corporation, and as a corporation it has to protect itself from liability, or maintain an employee's confidentiality, but City Hall has secrets.

On the other hand, maybe it should have a few less.

We in the Guelph media have recently covered the curious case of Bruce Poole. Poole, you see, was a longtime employee with the City of Guelph, and he enjoyed a high ranking position in the planning department. This much is certain. What’s less certain is that at some point Poole didn’t work for the City of Guelph anymore. He says he was fired for creating a ruckus about city properties not meeting Ontario building standards, the city says he was dismissed for . . . other reasons.

I’d like to say “that’s where it gets interesting.”

Actually, it gets interesting after Poole filed a $1 million lawsuit against the city, when Poole’s lawyer was given a flash drive full of documents a few weeks ago that were presumably related to the lawsuit, except that more than 53,000 of them were not. That’s where it gets interesting. The snafu cost a deputy chief administrative officer his job, sent City Hall scrambling, and got the attention of the Privacy Commissioner of Ontario. And before you can say “Assange” the city has settled the suit, and got the emails back.

The details of the deal were withheld.

Now, I think we all understand intellectually that this is a court case and a certain level of discretion has to be maintained. That’s doubly the case here because of the email component. The reason City Hall was scrambling was because those emails contained personal information about several City of Guelph employees. Having said that though, I think we’re all thinking the same thing: tell us everything!

First of all, what was the settlement between the City and Poole? Was it fixing up the homestead money, or moving to a private island money? But seriously, did the email mistake prompt the sudden resolution to a nearly two-year old lawsuit? And if the content on that flash drive was that sensitive, how do we know that the contents of that drive aren’t sitting on another drive or computer somewhere? At the same time, none of this does anything to deal with the original dilemma: why was Poole fired in the first place? You know, beyond the he said/they said.

You may recall that I was involved in a, well, wee situation last year with city council and how it deals with things behind closed doors. At a January meeting, council moved in camera, and then 30 minutes later, some of them came back out and couldn’t close down the meeting because they lost quorum. Stupid me thought there was a simple, reasonable, discloseable explanation. I was wrong.

That’s just one example though, and the obscurity covers a wide variety of situations. For instance, this time last year the City was renegotiating the Guelph Storm’s lease of the Sleeman Centre, which would assure whether or nor the Storm would continue to play in the Royal City. On the council agenda, under Closed Meeting, this matter was listed as “Guelph Storm Negotiation Update.” Negotiations with who? For what? The description alone doesn’t just reveal little, it reveals nothing. For all we knew, the Guelph Storm was negotiating to ban hot pretzels from concession stands.

A bit more seriously was the sudden dismissal of Transit GM Phil Meagher last fall. An embattled manager, of an embattled city department, was here one minute and gone the next, and never has their been a formal explanation because the statutes of confidentiality. We get that obviously, but Meagher had been working for years to develop a plan to improve transit services, and then he was gone and two years of hard work and high expectations were scrapped.

But I don’t want to re-litigate anything that’s happened. The thing I want to draw attention to is that there’s much too much going on behind closed doors, and I’m not the only one that thinks so. And more to the point, this is not a phenomenon unique to Guelph.

This year alone, the Ontario Ombudsman has ruled on seven different complaints about municipalities and their use of the closed meeting conditions of the Municipal Act. In most cases, the Ombudsman found no wrongdoing, but its clear that many people are highly cynical about what their politicians are doing in meetings outside the council chambers.

Now that’s not to say we think there’s nefarious doings. Some probably do, but in lieu of actual evidence pointing to something fishy going on, let us assume that council is looking out for our best interest. That’s really the problem here. I’ve supposed for a while now that the only plausible reason we have so much going on behind closed doors is because council is super-aware of the possibilities of getting sued into a situation that’s stickier than the appearance that comes from too many closed door meetings.

Now obviously, you can’t say anything for certain because if you’re not on council or are a member of senior staff then you don’t know all the details. Having said that, there’s got to be a way that we can be told things without betraying the demands of confidentiality, not to mention the legal responsibility, in talking about staffing issues, or other matters that conform to the Municipal Act requirements for a closed meeting.

At the beginning of every council meeting Mayor Cam Guthrie comes out and tells those watching in person or at home that council had discussed Subject A in a closed meeting and what the result of that was, which is usually a single line like, “We gave direction to staff on Subject A.” Technically he is being transparent by acknowledging the Subject A was discussed, but to my mind transparency is about answering all 5 Ws and not just Who, What and When.

Again, I have no doubt that there’s nothing but good will in the way our council approaches their endeavours, but suspicions, whether they were justified or not, cast a long shadow on the last council as they dealt with important matters away from the public record.

If City Hall is indeed always looking at ways to improve communications and oversight with its citizens, then I think it begins with more talking on camera and less talking in camera. And politicians love to talk, right?