I want to share my views on a delicate subject: secrecy at City Hall and the need for much greater community consultation and openness. While my views may ruffle some feathers, I think we need to begin a serious discussion on how the city operates. After sitting at the council table for six weeks, I strongly believe that greater openness and early, meaningful community consultation will result in better, more cost-effective decision-making.
A number of important issues have crossed my desk since I took the oath of office, including spirited debates over the sale of city land to Vancouver-based developer Reliance Properties for development adjacent to the historic Northern Junk buildings. Council’s current discretion is shaped by an in-camera January 2010 decision, in which the previous council agreed to sell the land to the developer. This decision was made in the absence of community consultation. Much of the controversy we see today could have been avoided by talking to the community at the outset.
Last week, I was in the minority (along with Councillors Madoff and Gudgeon) in suggesting that we postpone further consideration of the Northern Junk rezoning until we see revised building plans and hear from Engineering staff regarding the logistical requirements for rail to downtown Victoria. A majority of councillors favoured moving the project forward for an economic analysis and feedback from advisory design and heritage panels.
Another issue debated last week — during an in camera meeting that excluded the public — was negotiating a confidential non-binding memorandum of understanding relating to the Royal Athletic Park. I am not at liberty to disclose the contents of the agreement being contemplated, but it is my view that the city should consult with North Park and Fernwood residents, the wider community, and existing users of the park before entering into negotiations with a private party. When I moved a motion to this effect, a majority of councillors favoured postponing consideration of community consultation, and instead empowered staff to negotiate the confidential non-binding memorandum of understanding.
These are just two issues on council’s radar screen that highlight a tension between the city’s dealings with private parties and the need for community consultation. While the Community Charter and the Council Bylaw allow for in-camera meetings relating to land, labour, legal advice, and inter-governmental relations, I have suggested that Council commit to a narrow reading of the statutory requirements for confidentiality, and that meeting agendas, minutes and other documents be guided by the principle of public disclosure.
I am confident that the current Council has the potential to conduct its proceedings in a more open, transparent and consultative way. Several councillors have suggested that we hold monthly “town hall” meetings or “citizens’ assemblies” to discuss issues of concern, allowing for community consultation without imposing a significant burden on city finances or staff resources. Decisions made openly and in a discussion with the community are more likely to generate widespread support, allowing the city and residents to focus our energies on forward-looking initiatives for the betterment of the community.