Open letter to Whitehorse City Council:
The City of Whitehorse administration has put forward amendments to the procedures bylaw that propose a new regime for public hearings. These amendments would immediately impact the way council and citizens interact on issues related to the Official Community Plan and the Zoning Bylaw, but there’s no reason to think that the measures wouldn’t be applied to any bylaw as council and administration choose.
Public hearings are considered quasi-judicial in nature, and they’re not generally regarded as the optimal way to foster effective communication between citizens and elected representatives. But there’s no doubt in my mind that the single public hearing is destined to become the standard for public “participation” if the amendments pass. The city’s trajectory from encouraging public engagement toward actively suppressing it is clear to those of us who follow these things and these amendments represent final steps in that journey.
In the administrative report, city planners point to a “minimum period of five weeks allowed for public input” before a public hearing takes place. They say the timeline is “significantly increased” for OCP amendments.
Where are they getting that information? Five weeks is the timeline outlined in the Yukon Municipal Act and it specifically relates to notifying the public about mandatory public hearings for the OCP. Accommodating public input isn’t included in the statutory requirement and that matters when it comes to the record of the City of Whitehorse for sticking with the minimum when it comes to the Municipal Act.
The Municipal Act requires the public hearing for the OCP to take place before second reading. City planners want city council to “deny the right to speak” to citizens after the public hearing, though any number of revisions may be prepared after a public hearing. If revisions to the bylaw don’t flow from the public hearing, what’s the point of the public hearing? If revisions are prepared that the public can’t comment on, where’s the accountability? These questions and many others need to be answered.
City planners say the intent of the amendments is to “comply with best practices.” If they’re referring to the best practices of a banana republic or a petro-state, that could be true. Otherwise even a quick review of legislation in other jurisdictions in Canada only highlights the absence of checks and balances in the Yukon that are needed to promote the perception of fairness, such as:
* There isn’t a definition for the “new information” that triggers another public hearing.
* There isn’t an independent process in place in the Yukon for appeals or reviews of municipal decisions.
* The territorial ombudsman can’t review municipal issues.
* Access to information from the City of Whitehorse is an ongoing concern.
* In a previous amendment to the procedures bylaw, council members of the day granted themselves unlimited authority to hold meetings in camera. The Municipal Act didn’t seem to intend that outcome and it isn’t consistent with “best practices” of other governments.
The level of information that council has been given is unacceptable for an initiative that promises to profoundly alter the relationship between council and citizens. I urge council members to soundly reject these regressive amendments to the procedures bylaw and commit fully to navigating through the complications of making decisions without sacrificing democratic principles.