Democracy and Transparency are too Expensive
Ron Bolin: June18, 2012
I present below a delegation made to Council sitting as the Committee of the Whole this afternoon. It was the very first of these meetings which was captured on video and by the time you read this, it should be available on the City’s web site (Shaw apparently was not interested in showing it live). I urge you all to view it all, but recommend particular attention to the discussion of Video Recording Capability in the Annex Replacement Meeting Room, item 7 (e). You will get an idea of Council’s views on the importance of your right to view the meetings which they get paid to attend and how they view citizens as participants in the democratic process. Democracy has some strong defenders, some wishy-washy and some who appear to think that the public should be kept far away from their game. As for who is who, I leave it to you.
For the record, the final vote on a much amended motion was six for not adding the video equipment, but for “roughing in” the wiring. ( I would have considered that part of the video equipment, but I guess I am naive.) One Councillor left the Chamber for unknown reasons and didn’t return until the inevitable in camera meeting began.
Watch for yourself and take the action which you feel is appropriate. We would certainly like your comments here.
Mayor Ruttan and Councillors:
You find yourselves faced tonight with a Staff recommendation that “video equipment not be added to the new Annex meeting room.” In the absence of any alternative, this is really code for saying that citizens will not be granted the ability to see their Council in action on items dealing with our finances and policies in Council’s Committee of the Whole meetings unless they come to the small board room in the new annex at an inopportune time of the day to see them in person. Is this the message that you wish to send to our citizens and taxpayers?
Staff advises that the video recording equipment necessary to perform this function in the new Annex will cost between $58,000 and $95,000. While professional video producers have advised me that these figures may be high, I will speak tonight to the figure of $58,000 which has been presented as adequate by Staff. While this sounds like a lot of money, let’s examine what it represents. To begin with this equipment will not need to be replaced annually, but should have at least a five year life. This brings the figure to $11,600 per annum. Furthermore as there are about 20 Committee of the Whole meetings in a year, the cost per meeting reduces to about $580 per meeting, if no other use is made of it than the Committee of the Whole. If we then look at the cost per potential viewer per meeting we find that we are talking in pennies. Is our right to view and partake in the democratic process in Nanaimo so insignificant that we must begrudge this amount when the City of Nanaimo 2012 – 2016 Financial Plan, shows expenditures of over $160 million this year and nearly $171.5 million next year?
A number of the reports which appear on this afternoon’s agenda are representative of the financial nature of the Committee of the Whole meetings. Among them, we can see that more than the $11,600 per annum asset cost of keeping citizens informed is to be given in the first round of Community Service Grants this year. Similarly over $58,000 is reported as having been reimbursed to Council in expenses last year. Moreover the Annual Report notes that Council gave approximately $1.3 million in permissive property tax exemptions last year. Is democracy and transparency of so much less value? I ask that you defeat Staff’s recommendation and implement video capability in the new Annex meeting room or find an alternative which will achieve this same end.
Thank You for your consideration.
Remembering that that final vote came after George Anderson moved staffs recomendation not to install and then a friendy amendment to rough in was added. George then switched to saying that if there were going to be a rough in we should add the video equipment and so he wouldnèt be supporting the motion. At a 4 – 4 tie, George voting against the motion was defeated and just as Councillor Kipp was going to make a new motion to put video equipment in George asked if he could call for a revote so he could change his original vote. The revote was taken and low and behold omly Councillors Greeves and McKay voted against it.
Ron is right when the video comes up ya gotta watch it.
Here is a link to the Video, you really have to check this out as any explanation just does not do it justice. Start with Ron’s presentation and continue watching through mine.
Council and Staff have initiated a new Annex, to costs of some $16 Million. Could we not have expected, at bare minimum, the contract specifications to have included rough-in wiring to support video recording. Nevertheless, when the shortfall was later raised by the public, Staff again failed to recommend installation and only half of the members of Council supported the Motion.
If the veil of rationalization is represented to be costs, then why does Council not continue to use the facilities of the Conference Centre, thereby creating some welcomed activity for the Center?
Jim: With regard to your observation that only half the members of Council supported the motion to Not install the video equipment but to go ahead and rough in the wiring, I believe the vote was 6 to 2 in favour. This left out the actual equipment, but kept the idea alive. The vote was compromised as some wanted to go directly to getting the equipment and thus voted against it as it stood. Anyone who watches the video of the meeting will be amazed at the back and forth and particular with some of the reasoning provided, most of which revolved around whether, if the public did not watch it (an unknown), it should not be made available for them to watch, a kind of Catch-22 argument. But please everyone watch it yourself and draw your own conclusions at:
In the meantime, in response to questions to Mr. Kenning, the following information has been received.
1. Re: The continued use of the Shaw Auditorium for COW meetings:
“As you can appreciate there are costs associated with holding meetings in any facility but the main difference between the Shaw and the potential use of the meeting room in the new building is that the Shaw has rental fees associated with its use. The net rental fees paid by the City for the use of the Shaw are approx. $375 per meeting (after taking into account the reduction in the VICC deficit due to these additional bookings at the Shaw – because as you know the VICC deficit is funded by the City).” (Al Kenning)
2. Re: Availability of Contingency funds to Council:
“In addition, you asked information about contingency funds. The financial plan includes an allocation within the Council section titled “Contingency” with $100,000.00 in available funding. I believe this full amount remains uncommitted.” (Al Kenning)
There are indeed sufficient funds available, if Council wishes to use them to enable citizen participation in municipal government rather than in some other objective.
It does not look like many Councillors are thrilled at the idea of being scrutinised.
That said the best outcome is the continued use of the Shaw auditorium.
The ways other monies have been squandered the cost is a mere pittance & a poor excuse to shut out the Public.
Thanks to Ron & Gord for the input. You must have strong stomachs to participate in such a circus.
With the rough-in being done, and the fact council is at Shaw until year’s end, there is ample time for a concerted public pressure campaign to convince council to go ahead and install the equipment.
If I were a betting man Ruttan, Brennan, Johnstone are the ones that will resist to the end, most of the others are in favour.
It would likely carry if the focus is kept on transparency and not fiscal responsibility.
It was humorous to listen to Diana wringing her hands over a possible $100,000 expense, going into a $12 million building, built without public tender.
Brennan on the other hand would sooner see the money go to ‘wonky’ cabinets at the fire hall, and air conditioning if I remember rightly.
Greves, Kipp, Bestwick and McKay are solidly behind it as is Anderson based on transparency.
My bet? It passes, and COW meetings will become as enlightening as a regular council meeting.
By my calculations, taking a roughly middle of the road cost, $72,000, based on what was presented and dividing that by the $375 cost of rental of the Shaw Auditorium council could hold 192 COW meetings.
A Letter to the Editor of the Daily News
Re: Council votes against video in new annex: DN June 22, 2012
I have been informed by City Staff that Council has an untouched contingency fund of $100,000 which could be put to this purpose. I was not informed about the amount of contingency funds set aside for either the Annex or for the City itself, but I am sure that the City has not neglected this aspect of business and life. And anyway, what is the use of spending even $7000 when it doesn’t lead to videos? Does Council want to build the not-quite-video-bridge to nowhere?
Alternatively, again from staff, meetings where video equipment is already available could continue to be held in the Shaw Auditorium at a net cost of about $375 per meeting. I am not sure of the cost when we don’t use it, but I know that we must fill the void in the conference centre budget whether we use it or not. That $7000 would give us about a year and a half of video recordings there.
In 2013, the budget is estimated at about $171.5 million dollars, an increase of $11.5 million dollars over this year and a possible tax increase of about 14% (1% represents about $800,000 in the budget) unless other sources of money are discovered. Citizens need to be able to see and hear Council as it goes into the presentations and discussions that will finalize that estimated budget and set the plan for the succeeding four years. This won’t be possible is a small room with about 16 seats for the public at a meeting at 4:30 in the afternoon without video access.
Committee of the Whole meetings are where both Budget/Finance and City Policy are discussed and voted on. Please call our Mayor and Council and request/demand that the video equipment either be installed in the new Annex Board Room now or that the Committee of the Whole meetings continue in the Shaw Auditorium. The budget is the City’s most important document. It is the source of your property tax bill as well as City fees. Be at least able to see what is going on in Council.