Consider This
Politics, Life and Journalism in Northumberland County, Ontario

Democracy withers at municipal councils

First published:
August 11, 2004

Democracy is fragile. Like a China cup, it must be handled with delicacy and respect if it is to stay intact. Port Hope council appears to be the bull in the china shop these past few months, as politicians seem to forget some of the basic tenants of open, accessible government. Other municipalities should take notes.

The first attack came when council announced two weeks ago it is going to charge $10 per copy for a full council agenda. Fran Aird, the chief operating officer, for the town, explained the cost of photocopying is prohibitive. Instead, material will be on the town web site and a copy will be available for review at her office. A computer may also be made available for residents to come in and use.

There is no argument with the town’s plans to make more documents available online. In fact, the federal government has been encouraging municipalities to do this through its Crossing Boundaries initiatives over the past five years. Cobourg council could take a (web) page from Port Hope in this regard. The Port Hope site has far more information such as council minutes and committee meetings online compared to the pathetic offerings in Cobourg.

And there are many public access points, particularly the local library, where residents can access the information.

And the idea of having material on a CD is also a good, as suggested by Ms. Aird in her report.

However, the idea of charging $10 for a paper version is unacceptable. Resident John Dietz made some excellent points in responding to the proposal. He does not have a computer at home and he feels, as someone who regularly attends council meetings, he should be able to get a paper version for free, along with several others.

This is reasonable. Port Hope council should never forget the technological divide between those who have technology and those who do not. And while there are public access points, there are many people who are not technically literate enough to use the system.

Certainly, it should encourage as many people as possible to access the web. But a free copy of a full agenda represents a minor cost and makes information available to everyone, not just those who can afford it. Government information should be easily accessible and free if politicians and civil servants are to be accountable to everyone. This is a fundamental principle.

But this is not the first time Port Hope council has chosen to assail citizens over such petty concerns.

Near the end of June, Nuclear Environmental Watchdogs chair Chris Conti was blindsided when he came before council to make a presentation. While he was called upon to submit his written presentation in advance, representatives from Cameo, a local nuclear refinement plant, did not.

Councillors did the right thing by siding with Mr. Conti’s complaint that he did not get to see what Cameo was saying in advance, while Cameco seemed to be prepared for his presentation.

But this is not the most disturbing aspect of all this. Council decided it should review its delegation policy. Councillor Karen O’Hara said delegations should make only one point and no more. Mayor Rick Austin mused that council may be “too open” and in need of fixing. Councillor Jeff Lees said council meetings were not the stage for delegations.

“This isn’t the place to debate the facts,” he said of delegations, adding council business should take precedent.

Deputy Mayor Linda Thompson joined him when she also complained about too much time being taken up be delegations.

Excuse me, but is this not what councils are suppose to do? Listening to the electorate should be the first principle of any council. And if both sides wish to take a run at each other, isn’t it useful to hear the various concerns. Council already limits the delegations to a maximum of five per meeting with no more than 10 minutes to present. It is a disgrace politicians can’t hand over an hour to the public. Heck, they should have as much time as necessary. What could possibly more important in a democracy.

The final instance was Cameco vice president Bob Steane’s criticism of Councillor John Morand’s membership in FARE (Families Against Radiation Exposure). The organization is opposed to Cameco’s plans to process slightly enriched uranium.

Councillors sit on many committees to represent the town’s interest; the most notable is the chamber of commerce, among others. Mr. Morand sought legal advice to ensure he was not in a conflict of interest.

Instead of criticizing Mr. Morand, he should be praised. Many times councillors work behind the scenes with various interest groups. Often times, politicians stay in the background and the public has no idea. Here we have an example of a public showing of support. And while some may not agree with his position, there is no mistaking his loyalty. This is what transparency is all about.

Port Hope politicians have an opportunity to rethink. The proposal to charge $10 for photocopies of agendas will not be put in place for several weeks. The review of the delegation policy is taking place over the next 90 days. It is time for them to think carefully. And residents should be clearly sending messages to council letting them know their actions are unacceptable.

Meanwhile, politicians across the county should be taking notes. The public is not ready to accept this kind of erosion of our democracy.

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