Never give a sucker an even break!
Ron Bolin: June 26, 2013
Never give a sucker an even break: Words of wisdom from the tongue of W.C. Fields to City of Nanaimo Staff who have taken it to heart leaving Council and the Public to cope with the consequences.
Step one in this sucker making process is to keep Council and the Public in the dark on upcoming issues until just before the meeting at which they will be presented for action. Make sure the agenda is several hundred pages long so that even reading the thing in such a short time will be a trial, let alone understanding it. And of course the public, even those who try to keep up with such things, mustn’t have the time for any research or to organization on these issues until after a decision has been made. The current time frame for public discussion of issues being brought forward to Council is 4 days, two of which are working days for those Councillors with jobs as for many, if not most, of our citizens.
Two: Try to set a meeting time for as many meetings as possible which minimizes the number of citizens who can attend, especially for meetings where money topics will be presented. Thus we find that COW meetings where most discussion of budget and money matters takes place are at 4:30pm in the afternoon. I must hasten to add that, to their credit, Council has put its Regular meetings on line for some time, and in addition made the executive decision to hold the COW meetings in the VICC Council Chambers rather than the small board room at the new SARC building. They also took the step of ensuring that the meeting would be available on video by the day after the meeting do that all citizens have the potential to view their Council and Staff in action, even if not in live performance.
Three: Hold a lot of in camera secret meetings while muttering the magic words: land, labour and litigation which covers a lot more ground than is provided for such by sections 90-1 and 90-2 in the Community Charter. The magic which transfers the generic L, L or L to secret in camera meetings is exquisitely performed right before the eyes of all onlookers in the same manner as Yossarian was flummoxed in Catch 22. Because it’s a secret, one can’t question it… and only Council has the power to bring about this transformation –or to release it. A report on releasing the power of dead in camera issues has been in preparation for some time, and each time it looks like it will come forward, there always seem to be inexplicable delays. It has been rumoured that a report on the status of in camera issues over the past couple of years has been available for several months, but sits languishing in the hands of Staff. Whenever Council asks for the status of this report, Staff responds that it is coming: “Soon come” as they say in Jamaica.
I, for one, would really like to see the minutes and the vote of the in camera meeting which decided that the Colliery dams should be destroyed. I have wracked my brain trying to figure out what could be secret in such a decision. The situation called for long overdue action, for public notice and emergency preparation, and for a clear plan for dealing with the problem. The failure to act publically before making a complicated decision in these circumstances has cost all of us dearly and shows no signs of letting up.
Four: Minimize interaction between Council and Citizens on issues. Council seems to do fine in attending social events where they are unlikely to be asked embarrassing questions. When in the mood, Councillors are also willing to discuss or correspond on issues with individual citizens. But for engaging issues with citizens who have come together to discuss one or more issues, there seems to be no appetite. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that in the indoctrination programs which are given to new Councillors and as refreshers to incumbents, Councillors are strenuously cautioned about the dangers of making their ideas public: Silence avoids controversy. Are ideas and opinions really so dangerous? Aren’t they what democracy and politics are really all about?
In this area credit is due to Councillor Anderson who promoted and brought Council to its first town hall meeting with the budget as its subject. The meeting was hampered by a subject so broad as to be bewildering for most on both sides of the table and so new for those same sides that they tended to be very tentative. Perhaps not much was accomplished on the subject matter, but a great deal was gained in the experience. It needs to happen more regularly and on topics more confined. It could be that after gaining experience we could put together something extraordinary. Perhaps to avoid clashing with the restrictions of Council on the definition of meetings, what we need is an outside organization to sponsor these events to which Council and Staff may be invited. I have often felt that Council needs a venue outside Council at which ideas could be thrashed out without the formality of a Council meeting.
Five: Have an ambiguous policy on what documents are public and which ones will appear on line. We need an information policy which defines as public all documents which are not declared to be secret, and these documents should be available on-line. Excepting the cases of historical data which may require special efforts to place on-line, the rest should be available when received unless declared secret. The need to make FOI requests should be brought to a minimum. The public has paid for the documentation which the city receives, or it has been provided without cost by the public. Why should it not be available without special request?
Six: Do not record or report on complaints. If you don’t hear them they don’t exist. The City needs a formal mechanism for recording and reporting on citizens’ complaints whether received in person, by phone or by email to City Hall. Complaints need then to be tallied and quarterly reports on those complaints should be published. This mechanism allows both citizens, senior Staff and Council to see the pattern of complaints by type and by area of the City and, over time, to see whether complaints are growing or are being reduced. This document can form part of the budget process.
I am sure that I have missed some important ways in which Council, as the Board of our Corporation and acting on our behalf, could improve transparency, public confidence and in the longer run public participation in the process of improving our City. Confidence and participation cannot be bought: they must be earned. I look forward to your observations and suggestions for improving the political conversation in Nanaimo.