Transparency, Consultation and Municipal Democracy

2018-08-21

How often do we hear the charges of “Lack of transparency,” and “No consultation,” when people object to a decision made by politicians? When I hear these objections, whether in Hampstead or elsewhere, I am not impressed. Of course, people have every right to protest against decisions with which they disagree and sometimes they are right but these accusations are shallow and don’t address the merits, or lack of them, of the issue at hand. They are just convenient labels that people trot out when they don’t have substantive arguments.

Is transparency always a good thing?
I would argue that it depends on the cost/benefit. I believe, in general, in making information available on our web site and we are quickly moving in that direction. For example, since the beginning of the year we have a section on our web site where we list crimes - home or car break-ins, or more serious ones, of which we have very few. We do not identify crime victims or exact addresses but the basics are there. We do this to counter the rumor mill which always exaggerates the true situation, as well as, to sensitize residents to steps they can take to reduce the chances of becoming a victim. Few other towns are so transparent.

However, there are many documents that the council gets monthly that we could put on our web site but we won’t because it costs money to do this and I think very few people would look at the material. For example, we could list every cheque that the town sends out with details or all the building permits granted (without the names and addresses) but how many residents would really look at these things? Even when we have meetings to explain the budget, no one or almost no one, attends. You want local tax increases to be kept under inflation and the town to be run well. I am sure you are happy to leave the detailed work to the council.

In some jurisdictions, private caucus meetings are not allowed. All deliberations must be in public. I do not think that is a good idea. The goal is to eliminate corruption but we are a small town and most of you know one or more members of council. Do you really think we are corrupt? I know that we are not and everyone serving is working to do what each person thinks is in the best interest of the town. Some advantages of private caucus meetings are: brainstorming without looking stupid, no public grandstanding for political gain, and in some cases development of strategies to solve problems which would be useless if the person we need to deal with knew what we were planning.

How about televised council meeting on the web? It is very expensive and with residents seldom attending the live meetings, it seems like a huge waste of money.

Surveys and consultation meetings
Consultation meetings on zoning changes and some loan by-laws are a legal requirement but again few, if any, attend. We have found surveys to be very helpful in some cases. Most recently we had a major survey on the potential recreation centre project and the feedback greatly influenced our grant proposal and rough design. We have often surveyed residents in a small area about an issue only related to that area. In those cases, we always listened to the majority and acted accordingly.

On the other hand, running a town based on referenda is not wise. We elect people to represent us and trust them to become knowledgeable and make wise decisions. Most residents do not have the information to make informed municipal decisions. That said, I and the councillors are always listening to suggestions from residents. They are much appreciated. On that note, I end with my usual closing paragraph.

If you have any comments or questions on this topic or anything related to Hampstead, please e-mail me at wsteinberg@hampstead.qc.ca or call me 7 days a week until midnight at my home office (514) 483-6954.


Sincerely,


Dr. Bill Steinberg
Mayor, Town of Hampstead