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EDITORIAL: We have a right to seek government accountability

"Watching how a council comes to its decisions is a key part of the democratic process."

Every time a council goes in camera, we should be questioning why, and what for.

Discussions on challenges faced by a municipality's leaders must be had in front of its public. Watching how a council comes to its decisions is a key part of the democratic process, and one that provides background, information, and insight taxpayers have a right to hear and see.

Transparency of our outgoing council has been questioned by residents and Gazette reporters alike in recent months. So much so, it has become a key piece of several candidates' platforms in the lead-up to our municipal election Oct. 18.

Certainly, it makes sense to tuck sensitive staffing matters and proprietary information behind closed doors, according to the Municipal Government Act, which dictates just how often and for what types of topics a governing body can have a little privacy.

"Traditionally, local governments are more open than their provincial and federal counterparts when it comes to information," says freedom of information specialist Sean Holman, in today's front-page story.

Unfortunately, he says, that is starting to shift, and not necessarily in a positive direction.

Municipalities are more often drawn, of late, to secret, cabinet-style meetings ahead of public decisions.

“In that system, secrecy is assumed to be necessary for decision making,” Holman said. “We’re seeing that idea of secrecy filtering down right to the local level.”

Never more alarming was the Aug. 30 council meeting at which, when pressed for more detail on the solar-farm project, St. Albert's city administration officer Kevin Scoble retorted, rather forcefully, that the city had drawn the line on what it was willing or able to reveal, and anything more would have to be fought for by residents through freedom of information and protection of privacy requests, calling challenges from the public, and presumably local media, "allegations."

What is more frustrating, is how many members on council kept quiet at that moment, deciding not to challenge his response, deemed dismissive by many of the residents who attended the meeting in person to raise their concerns.

Citizens have a right to seek government accountability. It's half the reason why FOIP exists. The other half is to protect privacy, but how much privacy a municipality needs when dealing in large sums of taxpayers' money should always be weighed carefully against the potential hardship faced by the taxpayers who must foot the final bill. 

Playing keepaway with any knowledge is often a signal something isn't right. So is the penchant for the use, overuse, or perhaps misuse of the word "proprietary."  

What is most problematic is who ultimately decides what is appropriate to release — The mayor? City council? Administration? The province? The public?

It's important to know how many discussions are being held away from voters, and how often, and for what reasons. 

Perhaps it's time to remove the word "proprietary" from the Municipal Government Act, and replace it with a more specific set of terms that is more telling — and more transparent — for a public who puts, often blind, trust in its decision makers.

It's also time to make sure, with an election upon us, we won't end up with either council members who are quite happy to walk forward with blinders on, or those who would be just as happy for taxpayers to be wearing them.

Mayoral candidate Cathy Heron, who is seeking re-election, said this week: "We're not hiding anything from the public, unless it's proprietary ... ."

There's that word again: "Proprietary."

Sometimes the best place to hide something is in plain sight.

Editorials are the consensus view of the St. Albert Gazette’s editorial board.