Open letter to Whitehorse City Council:
City of Whitehorse planners have proposed a few amendments to the procedures bylaw that affect public hearings, which are required for the Official Community Plan and the Zoning Bylaw. They propose that once a public hearing is declared closed, council will no longer consider written submissions on the bylaw and will deny citizens the opportunity to speak at further council meetings when the topic is on the agenda.
City planners note that council will only consider information submitted from the administration after the public hearing, though nothing is offered to address the issue of accountability to the public from the administration. If new information is submitted, a new public hearing may be called. I assume that planners will act as gatekeepers for information and choose to submit – or not – to council after the public hearing.
To summarize, city planners have proposed amendments that add constraints to communication between the public and council and enhance their own influence, if not authority, over land use planning issues. Planners tell council that the changes are necessary because of judicial rulings on public hearings – rulings made in British Columbia in the 1970s.
A concern to comply with judicial rulings may seem a compelling reason for council to pass the amendments. But municipalities in British Columbia continue to face court actions over public hearings and the results are less clear cut than planners suggest.
I intended to present council with a list of measures from legislation in British Columbia that mark a more balanced response to a court decision. There are several, starting with the fact that public hearings are regulated in the province’s Local Government Act, allowing for harmony with other parts of the legislation, such as a prescriptive approach to official community plans.
But I don’t live in British Columbia. We have our own Yukon Municipal Act here and it says that “Yukon municipal governments … are responsible and accountable to the citizens they serve” and that “public participation is fundamental to good local government.”
Consider just two aspects in the proposed Whitehorse amendments that should raise questions about claims to “fairness” and “best practices”:
* Despite the heightened significance of public hearings for citizens in the amendments, they will still be folded into the regular meeting agenda with other items. As council knows, those agendas are pretty busy.
* Written submissions sent by email or fax after 12 noon the day of the public hearing won’t be accepted, which creates a different deadline for comments for anyone who can’t attend a public hearing in person or otherwise meet the conditions for delivering a hard copy.
Whitehorse City Council has recently acted on concerns about transparency and accountability at city hall, reflected in amendments to the Procedures Bylaw that release meeting agendas to the public more quickly and that restore boundaries to in-camera meetings. Despite these positive developments, to an observer it appears that while Whitehorse City Council tries to pedal forward on these matters, its administration is pedaling backwards. And it has more momentum.