This week, I wanted to talk about accountability, and given the City of Victoria’s track record things weren’t looking good for the folks down at Pandora’s Box. Highlights from the city’s recent past include the Johnson Street Bridge project, which drew heavy criticism for its one-sided “trust us, we’ve got this one” approach to public engagement; foot dragging on the city’s now years-old website redesign; and the previous council’s penchant for frequent and occasionally unnecessary in-camera meetings.
To top it all off, the absence of guidelines for what, when and where information should be released to the public after a closed meeting means anyone curious about why they’re being excluded from a decision is out of luck. But thanks to a change of heart (and membership) down at city hall, things may be looking up.
Last October, council passed a motion supporting the principles of Open Data — essentially, that information should be complete, accessible and released before it goes stale. An election has come and gone since then, but an upcoming proposal by Councillor Lisa Helps has kept alive the promise of a more open city hall.
“I’m drafting an Open Council and Closed Meeting Protocol Policy to enshrine some of the practices already in place and put into place other elements of openness that are currently lacking in Council’s practices,” says Helps.
With an eye toward greater transparency, Helps’ proposal will create a minimum standard for publicizing information about council’s in-camera activities, something that Open Victoria’s Derry McDonell says is necessary if Victoria wants to catch up to other Canadian municipalities.
“Victoria is the only municipality in B.C. that does this. Every other municipality gives a specific reason,” says McDonell.
Many other councils further outshine Victoria by including guidelines for review and release of information related to those meetings as that information becomes less sensetive.
The city is far from perfect when it comes to accountability, and creating a more transparent city hall is guaranteed to be an uphill battle. Still, proposals like those mentioned above and hugely successful public engagement projects, like those associated with Victoria’s recent Official Community Plan update, provide a glimmer of hope on the horizon. With the continued support of this new council and a bit of luck, the trend may just continue. M