How transparent is city hall?

Tyler Clarke
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A key campaign point during any civic election is transparency, with this month’s municipal election no exception.

Coun. Cheryl Ring is seen during a recent city council meeting. Ring alleges transparency issues at city hall, in that there is sometimes questionable rationale for items to appear in camera (out of public view) — an opinion not everyone on council agrees with. 

A key campaign point during any civic election is transparency, with this month’s municipal election no exception.

Current members of council are in disagreement over whether there are transparency issues, with Coun. Lee Atkinson the most outspoken proponent for greater transparency.

In camera meetings are covering more things than ever before, including items outside of their legislated purpose of covering issues of “land legal or labour,” he said.

“Currently, we see items at committee as a whole, and that’s one kick of the can and they’re gone,” Atkinson said, adding that these items are then never addressed in a public setting.

In her three years on city council, Coun. Cheryl Ring cites a number of circumstances where she questioned the contents of in camera meetings.

“There are issues that come to committee as a whole that are very questionable as to their need or requirement to be there, because the qualifications that we use — land legal or labour — are very clear,” she said.

Sometimes, it seems as though items are added to the in camera meetings with shaky justification in order to avoid public scrutiny, she said. Such is the case with Prince Albert Arts Board financials, which were provided to city council but not the public.

Pre-council meetings in the mayor’s chambers are also commonplace, Atkinson said — as someone without an invite, questioning what they talk about.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Coun. Ted Zurakowski said when asked about these pre-council meetings.

“I just don’t know what to say to that. I don’t know anything about it — period.”

Zurakowski also calls to question accusations that information is kept from members of council.

“All you have to do is ask for it and the information’s there,” he said. “Information’s been made to me every time I’ve asked for it.”

The city’s three mayoral candidates also have varying viewpoints when it comes to alleged transparency issues in city hall:

Information kept secret: Greg Dionne

Mayoral candidate Greg Dionne currently serves Ward 2 on city council, during which time he’s noted a lack of transparency when it comes to divvying up taxpayers’ money.

“When we’re funding outside agencies with taxpayer money, I believe they have to supply us with budgets and a business plan,” he said.

“The reason that we need the business plan is that we have to make sure that going forward they’re sound with the funding they have, and they’re not going to end up being in the hole and coming back to council asking for more money.”

An example of this approach has come about with the long-contested Prince Albert Arts Board, which receives city funding without supplying the public with financials.

Related to this is the transferring of money out of the Prince Albert Arts Board’s Operating Trust Fund and Capital Reserve Funds without council approval.

“They transferred money out of a capital account that clearly says they can’t do (so) without council permission,” Dionne said, pointing blame at Scarrow, as a member of the board’s governance committee. “To me, the mayor was out of line.”

When it comes to information, not all councillors are treated the same, Dionne said.

“If all nine bosses have the same information and the same reports, and get it all at the same time, there is no controversy,” he said.

“That’s why there’s controversy — we don’t have that privilege.

“If I get elected mayor I’m removing the mayor’s position from chair of these committees, because that just gives the mayor too much power, and in some cases it can stem the flow of information.”

In camera meetings misused: Dean Link

Already campaigning in part against the city’s current transparency issues, mayoral candidate Dean Link was given icing for the cake this month, when details of an in camera meeting were leaked to him.

There are issues that come to committee as a whole that are very questionable as to their need or requirement to be there, because the qualifications that we use — land legal or labour — are very clear. Coun. Cheryl Ring

The meeting dealt with preparation for Gov. Gen. David Johnston and wife Sharon Johnston’s Oct. 9 visit to Prince Albert.

During an in camera meeting prior to their arrival, council approved $8,400 in funding to pay for the event, also deciding to not bring it up during the public executive committee meeting that followed, it’s alleged.

Council retroactively considered a city administration report on the expenses during their Oct. 11 city council meeting, two days after the Johnstons’ visit. The report is dated Oct. 2 — the date of the executive committee meeting.

“That’s a perfect example of city hall with no transparency — hiding non-essential things like that in camera,” Link said. “What else is being hidden from taxpayers?”

Since the decision was a financial one having nothing to do with land, legal or labour, he questions why it was brought up in camera.

“The mayor has orchestrated something else being hidden — perfect example,” he said. “Unfathomable, that they would do that.”

Other examples include the Prince Albert Police Service budget and Prince Albert Arts Board funding — both done without budgets brought forth to the public.

“That will not be going on under my watch,” Link said.

“Any outside board or organization that receives money from this city will not receive a dime unless they present updated financials.”

No transparency issues: Jim Scarrow

Mayor Jim Scarrow said that while he does occasionally meet with councillors prior to council meetings, he’s constantly meeting with members of council.

As a full-time mayor, his door’s always open, he said.

“I often ask ‘is there anything that’s on the agenda that you’re concerned about?’ Because, with this council there are many different perspectives, so I make that inquiry of all councillors.”

Those looking for controversy in these meetings would be had pressed, he said.

“None of it would have to do with anything of a devious nature. It’s information sharing — there’s nothing there.”

When it comes to allegations that in camera committee as a whole meetings are covering more than they have in the past, Scarrow says the complete opposite is true.

“We are only able to speak to the following items — land, legal and labour, and nothing else in committee as a whole,” he said, adding that as much as possible is out in the open in a public city council meeting format.

Scarrow said that what some people don’t factor in is that he’s a full-time mayor, and as such he needs to be up to date — particularly during incidents such as the recent Diefenbaker bridge lane closures and construction.

“I had to learn a whole lot about a bridge, because the mayor needs to speak effectively and accurately on these issues and challenges that come up, both good and bad,” he said.

“While on paper all of us each have one vote, the mayor has a larger responsibility in order to be able to respond to the issues — particularly with media — to the general public.”

This isn’t to say that the information he comes across is kept from the rest of council, and if a member of council ever needs additional information on an item, they can either request it during a meeting or seek it from the department head, as he and many others on council do.

“I do receive a lot of information, but it’s not exclusive to myself,” Scarrow said.

Calling accusations of transparency issues false, Scarrow cites the recent move on the part of the city to have city council meeting videos available online for anyone interested to stream.

“That’s an important part of this whole democracy.”

Organizations: Prince Albert Arts Board, Operating Trust Fund, Capital Reserve Funds Prince Albert Police Service

Geographic location: Prince Albert

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