Kicking the door open at City Hall

Posted by on January 30, 2012

Ben is proposing that council open up City Hall, by restricting the use of in-camera meetings and increasing opportunities for community consultation

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.

12 Responses to Kicking the door open at City Hall

  1. Caelen Bright

    Hi Ben. Thank you so much, I had no idea the facilities at RAP were under consideration for negotiations. Our family attends multiple events at RAP; many soccer games, both Highlanders and Victoria United, music fests, the beer fest. We watched the FIFA U-20 there years ago, and hope to watch the World Ultimate Championships there this summer. It is the ONLY outdoor sports field we can cycle to from our home, and without it we’d be forced to watch soccer out in Langford, which is a trip we are not willing to take. (Don’t get me started on the absurd level of violence on the ice at Save-On-Foods Arena. Nothing could get us to attend a Royals game.)

    We bought a home near d.town so that we could walk, cycle and bus to all the great things our City has to offer. Since we bought it we’ve lost Crystal Gardens, our only bowling alley at the new Wal-Mart site, the Vic theatre . . does our Mayor *want* us to move to Langford to find affordable, family-oriented, independant small-businesses to support?

    I will forward this on to Mayor and Council. I’m sorry I cannot make your open door sessions, and I appreciate being kept informed via your newsletters. While I voted for you (and Shellie and Lisa and Geoff ) I did not vote for the other incumbent councillors or mayor, and I hope they are not allowed to continue to turn our City into a flashy, Anytown-America style metropolis-in-waiting. That is not what Victoria is about, not what tourists come to see, and not something our economy can support. Clearly their motivations are not about doing what is best for our City.

    Caelen

  2. Harvey Williams

    A non-binding memorandum of understanding? What is the purpose of signing such a memorandum? That’s a rhetorical question!!

    Important decisions such as the sale of city property should not be made in camera.

  3. Alex Fortean

    You rock Ben.

  4. Hugh

    Splendid stuff, Ben. Keep em coming. I support strongly Pam and you and Ms. Gudgeon over the Junk situation. Changing the face of the city without public consultation is incredibly stupid… and damaging to the city’s profile and the solidity of it relations with its citizens.

    Public meetings and Public accountability… please.

  5. Janet Simpson

    This is a great idea, Ben. It’s definitely time.
    What happened to Lisa Helps? Why didn’t she join you and Pam?
    Janet

  6. Andrew

    Won’t rent seekers and other special interests flock to these meetings?

    The danger is that the general goodwill is rarely represented fanatically — it’s left up to the council to do that.

  7. Lisa Helps

    Thanks Ben. This is great. In response to Janet Simpson, you can keep track of what I’m thinking and how I’m voting by checking in here regularly http://www.lisahelpsvictoria.ca/city_hall.html

  8. alison acker

    great. there is so much to be done. Please make the police board front and centre. no more increases to the police until they stop harassing the poor. we’d love to pack city hall when you talk about this.

  9. Nita Dunn

    Seems like certain members of city council are taking a page out of Stephen Harper’s “Guide to Limiting Democracy.” Obviously there are occasions when in camera meetings may be necessary, but guidelines governing the decision to do so should be both stringent and public. What are the present guidelines, if any?

  10. Tara Ehrcke

    Thanks Ben for keeping us informed and for speaking out on transparent local government. I see the same issues arise on School Board – many decisions are really taking place in senior admin offices and then “in camera” board meetings that should be open to public scrutiny.

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