How much is Democracy Worth?

Ron Bolin: June 15, 2012

At the June 18 meeting of the Committee of the Whole (Council meeting by another name and able to do most anything except pass bylaws) to be held at the Shaw Auditorium at 4:30pm, a report will be brought forth from Staff which recommends that:  “That video recording equipment not be added to the new Annex meeting room”.  This will ensure that only the small number of citizens who will fit into the small new Annex board room at 4:30 in the afternoon if any seats are left over from Staff, will see what takes place in the discussions of budgets, finance, and city policy which take place in these meetings.  Of course it could be worse.  The meetings could be moved to 3am in a phone booth.  Council has the power to do this.  ;-)

But semi facetiousness aside, this recommendation, if followed by Council, means than many of the most important issues discussed and acted upon by our Council, those dealing with money and policy, will be unavailable for general public view.  This is all the more important as a recent Council decision makes it mandatory that any group or citizen who wishes to address Council at a regular meeting must first attend at these invisible meetings.

The conclusion reached by the report is as follows:

Adding video recording capablilities to the new Annex meeting room will require a comprehensive AV solution consisting of the following equipment: four video cameras, audio system with individual microphones, recording and switching control, webcasting, hearing assist facility; plus staff to operate the equipment during meetings. The cost of an acceptable quality solution will be $58,000 to $95000.

A low end solution, consisting of a single camera or lower priced equipment will not provide an acceptable quality of broadcast, given the current professional level of the regular Council meetings.”

Two alternatives are mentioned:

  • Option 1, Council could choose to continue to hold the COW meetings in the Shaw Auditorium, where the meetings are currently being video recorded.
  • Option 2, is to contract an AV service to record the meetings. The contractor would provide all the audio and video equipment and set it up on a temporary basis in the room. The result would be temporary cameras and cables throughout the room, infringing on the meeting progress. Staff have not investigated the cost implications of this option.

Neither option is properly costed.  Nor is there any discussion or apparent consideration of the need, in a democracy, not only for justice to be done, but for it to be seen to done.

While my video savvy friends inform me that even the lower estimate may be padded, lets look at that amount a little bit closer.  If we were to fit out the annex board room with the recommended equipment we would spend $58,000.  What would we get for that amount?  We would acquire equipment which could inform and enlighten our citizens which should last for at least 5 years. That gets us to about $11,600 per year.  Then we get video of some 18 Committee of the Whole meetings per year.  This gets the cost down, assuming the equipment is not used for any other purpose, to about $645 per meeting.  But the big kicker is that we get the ability for some 85,000 citizens to see how Council works at a time and place convenient to them.  That works out to about ¾ of one cent per Citizen per video.  Granted that not all citizens, perhaps not even a majority, will view these videos for more than the most arousing issues, but it is important that the ability be there in a democracy, especially when it can be done at such an insignificant cost.  Democracy demands, if not constant attention, then at least the capability to pay attention when it is needed.

And, for example, let’s take a look at another way $58,000 is spent.  The Statement of Financial Information (SOFI) which is also on Monday’s agenda notes that Council expenses in 2011 amounted to $58,875.12, most of which I believe was spent on attendance at various conferences around Canada during the year.  This amounts to about $4542 per Councillor in 2011 alone.  How does the impact of this spending compare to the benefits which can be conferred on all citizens from the ability to take part in the City’s business?