Need for transparency

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Earlier this week, St. Albert City Council continued its work on a new Council Code of Conduct Bylaw, but so far the residents of St. Albert are in the dark about the ongoing discussions.

The discussions happened in camera. Only Coun. Bob Russell opposed having a private meeting on the topic.

“This (bylaw) has been developed to be consistent with open government and transparency, and I don’t understand how you can say that then go into an in camera meeting,” he said.

Mayor Nolan Crouse moved to go in camera citing sections 24 (advice from officials) and 27 (privileged information) of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

Sometimes, city councils need to discuss things in private and that very well might be the case for the Council Code of Conduct at this time.

Often councils go in camera for legal reasons, but the standard should be to be as open and transparent wherever possible – it’s fundamental to democracy. But Crouse stated that he generally favours having more conversations in camera, as it enables councillors to discuss issues more frankly.

“If there’s 100 people in the gallery the behaviour is different,” he said. “I’ve always believed we should have had more of our conversations in camera than in public.”

If anything, St. Albert City Council should strive for fewer in-camera discussions and more transparency. This is a council that has dealt with several contentious issues including allegations of pecuniary interest and a former councillor accepting a city job while sitting as a councillor. There is a reason this council is currently facing an inspection by Alberta Municipal Affairs.

It’s true that people behave differently in public than they do in private, but this isn’t a strong argument for secrecy. While some councillors may descend into grandstanding in council, their actions are public and open to criticism. This is how the public holds government accountable. Information empowers citizens and it creates open dialogue.

Similarly, secrecy leads to mistrust of public officials. Going in camera is an important tool for council, but it’s one that should be used sparingly. Taxpayers deserve to know how their tax dollars are being spent and why they are being spent. For taxpayers, council meetings are the window into the city’s governance. Hopefully once the Council Code of Conduct bylaw is presented and passed, it will include a reference to transparency and the need for open government.

Serving in government, at any level, is to serve citizens. Those citizens are the bosses of elected officials; they choose their employees through elections. They can’t properly evaluate the job performance of elected officials if they don’t have all the information. An increase in transparency is an increase in accountability, and this is what council should strive for.

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