It wasn’t that long ago when St. Albert had a city council that was dysfunctional – the tension, the arguments and lack of decorum were on display for all to see at virtually every council meeting.
But since last October’s municipal election, things have changed, or have they? Unfortunately, we don’t have the answer to that as council has been holding what it calls ‘training workshops’. What are these workshops, exactly? We don’t really have the answer to that one, either. All we can tell readers is that these meetings were held behind closed doors, without any guidelines as to what could be discussed, without any minutes taken, and without the public or the media knowing these training workshops were taking place. Could it be that council, in an effort to avoid the public airing of differences, is debating civic matters without the public’s glare?
The lack of transparency hasn’t sat well with one councillor. Sheena Hughes sounded the alarm about these closed-door meetings back in January, and it’s taken this long for a policy to wind its way to council chambers. In the meantime, council has continued to meet in private.
Council first debated a policy on these closed-door meetings in June during the Governance, Priorities and Finance committee meeting. The policy was finally passed during last week’s council meeting. In a 4-3 vote, council agreed that workshops cannot be used to make council decisions, advance city business or an existing council motion. In short, these workshops are strictly for training or education. Three councillors have served two or more terms and the newbies have nearly a year under their belts. Is it too much to hope that the need for more training and education is behind them?
It is alarming that it took nine months for this new council to realize the error of its ways. Meeting behind closed doors, without any rules, without any minutes taken, without any public notification, is an affront to the democratic process. The optics are poor. Whatever they have been discussing, we’re certain they weren’t sharing vacation stories. We do know council discussed changes to a bylaw regarding public presentations, behind closed doors, and administration brought these changes back to a regular council meeting. What else they’ve discussed, with resolutions appearing later at a regular council meeting, is anyone’s guess.
It is noteworthy to point out the three councillors who voted against the policy were Hughes, Ray Watkins and Natalie Joly. Hughes voted against because she wanted to see a stronger policy in place. Joly voted against because she says the policy won’t change how council does business. Watkins didn’t respond to an interview request.
Mayor Cathy Heron has stated that conversations are different with the media in the room, and that’s why she was in favour of holding these private workshops. The mayor and council are elected by the people who are entitled to know what their politicians are thinking about civic issues. Heron also said she wants to “know the feelings of my council.” We suggest the rest of the taxpayers in the city would like to know that, too.