Editorial: Council and city staff admit they can’t speak honestly if the public is watching

Whitehorse is already less transparent then most municipalities in Canada. Closing meetings to the public is wrong

On Monday evening Whitehorse city council is set to vote on a proposed policy change that would make it even harder for residents to understand what’s happening at city hall.

It’s a chance for all the councillors who waxed poetically during the election about the need for government transparency to prove that they mean it and vote the change down.

For the uninitiated, periodically council members will meet with city staff in what is called a council and senior management (CASM) meeting. These are outside of the formal council meetings you hear about every Monday but staff and council get a chance to discuss the details of issues that might be coming down the pipe.

The meetings are open to the public.

Under the new proposed policy, CASM meetings would become “roundtables,” there would be changes to the way the meetings are run, and the public and the press would be locked out.

Unless the city has something to hide, shutting out the public is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

The city’s explanation for why the change needs to happen is convoluted.

In the same breath you’ll hear administration say private meetings will allow staff to get a clearer understanding of what council wants and have “frank” discussion. At the same time they insist that we shouldn’t worry because the public rarely shows up to the current CASMs anyway.

Apparently the city needs to change the CASM policy and make the meetings less formal in order to comply with the Municipal Act. That can be done without becoming more secretive.

Go ahead with the proposed changes to who chairs the meetings and how formal they are, but the public should be allowed to stay.

The idea that city staff won’t be able to have frank discussions if the public is let in the room is ridiculous. You are public servants paid for by the public dollar and the public should get to know your thought process. Voters are smart enough to know when a project is in its early stages.

It’s not like these meetings are the only times council and city staff talk to each other. Don’t worry folks, you’re not losing the power to fire the fire chief without having to tell the public why.

CASM meetings are not about discussing state secrets. The last few that reporters have attended include a CASM on traffic and stoplights and the CASM on CASMs where we realized this change was being considered. (Without that, the public would have only found out one week before the vote.)

Assuming council comes to its senses and doesn’t lock the door, next week’s CASM meeting is on the Jumpstart Playground.

Protecting the public’s right to know how its government is run is far more important than protecting the government’s preference to talk about these things in secret.

Whitehorse residents should be even more concerned about council wanting to close the meetings since municipalities, including the City of Whitehorse, are not covered under the Yukon’s access to information legislation.

Whether you call these meetings CASMs or roundtables, there is no way for the public to know what happens unless they show up. No public minutes are produced and without access to information legislation there is no way for anyone to get a look behind the curtain after the fact.

True leadership from the city would be to begin the process of getting covered under the access legislation, but don’t hold your breath.

Reducing public access to any government decision-making process is a big deal. Doing it in a place like Whitehorse where the public is already kept out of so much more than other jurisdictions is cause for alarm.

Aside from some non-committal muttering about whether minutes should be made public, it doesn’t appear that any councillor is planning on taking a stand against kicking the public out of the new roundtables. That’s profoundly disappointing and something voters should remember the next time they go to the ballot box.

Maybe we’re wrong. On Monday councillors and the mayor will get a chance to solidify their position and prove to the voters that promising transparency during an election was more than a circus act to get votes.

Keep the meetings open.

(AJ)

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