Several candidates in St. Albert’s upcoming election have pinpointed transparency and openness as key issues in their platform.
Earlier in September, an analysis of publicly available data conducted by The Gazette found a third of council's meeting time was spent in private. The details of these in-camera sessions are not known, but some of the general themes outlined in meeting minutes included land matters, transit, strategic planning, and personnel and human resources.
During a recent Aug. 30 council meeting where a borrowing bylaw for the city's solar farm project was up for approval, residents voiced concern about some of the details of the project that remained unclear. The city’s chief administrative officer, Kevin Scoble, repeatedly stated that concerned residents were "welcome to file a freedom of information and protection of privacy (FOIP) request with the City of St. Albert” if they wanted information the city hadn't shared.
The Gazette reached out to all candidates running in the St. Albert election to ask them about these specific items, and how they would either support or change the most recent council’s approach to transparency.
Mayoral candidates had 120 words to answer the question:
David Letourneau: I support transparency in conducting council and administration business. It is important that residents have some understanding of the reasons for specific decisions. Residents have made it clear, as evidenced by the most recent community engagement survey, that this is important. There has been a significant decrease in the public’s satisfaction with sharing and access to information. In camera meetings and need for FOIP requests should be kept to a minimum. Communication with residents on decision-making processes, rationale, and appropriate supporting evidence will be a priority of mine. Information should be easily accessible, and the city has a duty to inform residents through the appropriate channels.
Bob Russell: I am deeply troubled by the amount of time council has devoted to in camera meetings and so is the public. As one small businessman has said to me, "Secrecy in government leads to corruption." As mayor I would not be at Scoble’s call for an in camera meeting without a solid reason restricted to a personnel matter or a financial matter where the disclosure might harm the city. As to Scoble’s demand that citizens pursue FOIP requests, our citizens should be able to get answers to questions. If I am elected mayor, I will have a direct line where people can phone me. If I can’t answer the phone immediately, I pledge to get back to people.
Cathy Heron: We are required, by the Municipal Governance Act, to use in camera to discuss anything related to land negotiations, legal confidentiality, and labour discussions. I hope residents are pleased with the results of major accomplishments that required in-camera conversations. An uncontested annexation and acquisition of land for the new Kingswood Park are just two examples. St. Albertans benefited by keeping those discussions confidential. I would also like to point out that the method of calculation used to arrive at these numbers does not include the number of public hours spent in committee, where the majority of work was done. Last term there were no similar committees, therefore the numbers provided are skewed. In-camera discussions may only be revealed through a FOIP request.
Angela Wood: Transparency is the cornerstone necessary in order for residents to have trust and confidence in their council and it is my position that this responsibility should be upheld and starts with the mayor upholding this standard. When the city manager states in a council meeting that residents and councillors must submit FOIP requests on two key and relevant topics, then it is up to the mayor to challenge him on these actions. It is one thing to not know the answer to a question, however it is another to refuse to give it. And the latter is unacceptable and should be properly addressed by the mayor.
Council candidates had 80 words to answer the question:
Gilbert Cantin: I would make sure we reduced as much as possible in camera time because our council meeting is a public meeting, and all subjects should be debated in public. I understand the odd time where the city had signed a confidentiality agreement and on some occasions debating in public would provide confidential information, but it should be limited to the minimum.
Kevan Jess: The MGA Section 197(2) notes where “in-camera” meetings are acceptable, generally defined as “land, legal and labour.” An extremely broad interpretation has been used, to inhibit disclosure and conduct private meetings. The need for “advice from officials” delivered in private is clear. Discussion of that advice and informal decisions should not, unless specifically meeting defined criteria, occur in private.
Shawn LeMay: This activity, described by others as more "shady" practices, is one of the main reasons we have so many new people running for office in a bid for truth, trust, and transparency. In-camera meetings should always be the exception and not the rule — never the way of doing business. These secret meetings certainly are cause for concern. I don’t agree with the CAO’s interpretation of the legislation. In my experience, FOIP and ATIP can be misused to deflect, cover up, and buy time.
Ken MacKay: Transparency, accountability, and public participation are necessary for good governance. Almost 90 per cent of this council’s business occurred in public. However, the Municipal Government Act and the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP) requires that legal, land, and personnel issues be held in camera. Topics on contract matters, land negotiations, annexation, financial, and operational impacts caused by the pandemic were in camera. All required in-camera discussions. Making a FOIP request to ensure that the matter met the criteria, is appropriate.
Mike Killick: I believe in professional courtesy at council. Our mayor should have called a point of order, advised that FOIP was not an appropriate response. I issued a FOIP on another issue, paid $400, received 100 pages of blacked out info. This must stop. I support the release of more information and minimal in-camera meetings. I want a council that works together for St. Albert with mutual respect and trust, for each other, administration, and our residents.
Isadore Stoyko: The increased amount of time spent in camera is not conducive to transparency on decision making when it comes to spending public money. The only in-camera sessions should be to deal with personnel issues in relation to employees of St. Albert. The remark by the chief administrative officer Kevin Scoble seems to be very callous.
Jennifer Cote: It is unacceptable. Reversing these practices should be the incoming council’s first matter of business. Mr. Scoble needs to be questioned as to why making access to information more burdensome was his preferred approach, and how he feels this approach serves the community. Residents deserve a council that will reject any future recommendations by the CAO that ultimately hinder access to information. Without transparency and open communication, we will not have trust.
Natalie Joly: My regular web posts about council’s agendas, my activities, and my decision-making process are part of my commitment to transparency and accountability, as is my pre-election campaign donor disclosure. That said, council is bound by FOIP legislation. In a term that completed an annexation, the Kingswood Park land negotiation, offered land for affordable housing, and accepted land for a recreation site, in-camera information sharing was required. Going forward, I will continue to communicate openly with residents.
Wally Popik: In-camera meetings should be kept to a bare minimum. These closed discussions leave many unanswered questions. Council and administration should not be uncomfortable in what they have voiced on city matters. I support open and clear communication that is available to the general public via live broadcast. CAO Kevin Scoble's response to pursuing FOIP was discounting. A strange response from an employee to an employer.
Leonard Wilkins: Advising the public to pursue FOIP requests is the opposite of transparency. If the council was truly transparent, the public wouldn't feel the need for FOIP. I will work with St. Albert’s city council to find a way to remove communication barriers and enable transparency and accountability.
Joseph Trapani: I do not believe in back-room deals. The public votes us in and we should always remember that we work for the community and not for our own pleasure. FOIP is meant to be used for formal documents, and it takes time to do, as a staff member must find the document, read through it, and remove all the FOIP requirement to be done. One single request could take a staff member several hours. We are a city; we can get many FOIP requests. Let's make the process easy for all.
Ross Guffei: I find it incomprehensible that administration does not provide adequate information to explain/justify their recommendation. What is even more disturbing, as a resident, is that council has allowed administration to get away with this approach. My platform is that residents should be provided with full disclosure on all matters relating to undertakings that require the city to provide funding to accomplish. I hope Mr. Scoble reconsiders the FOIP comment and provides information to the residents freely.
Shelley Biermanski: In-camera meetings do not provide the public with information about their city planning and the use of their tax dollar spending. A FOIP request is a process that should not have to exist if government is being transparent. The city manager works for city council and all St. Albert citizens and needs to be held accountable for providing straightforward information in all areas. Citizens should not be forced to protest because they were not previously advised.
Sheena Hughes: A standard at all times and especially when major financial decisions are discussed is full transparency and disclosure. A response to my questions with “file a FOIP request” at a council meeting is not acceptable. Proposals and documents should be able to withstand examination without questioning being shut down. The trust in elected officials’ decisions can only be maintained when a high standard for transparency is reinforced by the mayor and council. Withholding information or creating barriers to receiving information quickly deteriorates that trust.
Sandy Clark: I want to move more issues into the public forum knowing that certain issues require the confidentiality of in-camera meetings, but everything should be public when possible. I believe in timely responses, communication, and messaging from city council and city departments (CAO included) for requests from residents and media. Our media sources are a huge avenue to keeping St. Albertans advised, aware, and engaged. No one should need to pursue FOIP requests for information pertinent to current or imminent issues.
Louis Sobolewski: Council is abusing their use of in-camera time, and this is resulting in the public losing trust and confidence in them. Maybe if council stopped saying how much they care about the public’s opinion, and started giving the public the information they need so they can have an informed opinion, the public wouldn’t need to file a FOIP request. Actions speak louder than words when it comes to showing respect for the public’s opinion.
Rachel Jones: One of my three priorities is accountability. Transparency with residents is accountability. Our current council has explained the reasons for in-camera meetings when dealing with "legal, land or labour" topics, as Mayor Heron described, which had all increased. I understand that if land-price negotiations are made public, they put St. Albert at a significant disadvantage. As a new councillor, I will ensure to keep in mind the public perception of in-camera meetings, while knowing they are necessary at times.
Donna Kawahara: Many candidates are calling for no in-camera meetings, but that demonstrates a lack of understanding of the sensitive nature of the discussions that take place in private. Section 197 of the MGA states that matters that fall under FOIP are able to be discussed in camera. Items of personal privacy, safety, business interest, and intergovernmental relations are some topics. FOIP requests are the appropriate avenue to access information if needed. This is a method to protect personal privacy of those involved.
Mike Ferguson: Transparency should be improved regarding the proposed solar farm. There is no reason to hide this data.
Wes Brodhead: The Municipal Government Act clearly defines when a municipal council may go “in camera” and what may be discussed. This law also clearly states that all decisions of council must be made “in public.” Councils are bound to act in accordance with the MGA and I would not be a part of council breaking the law in any way.