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Opinion: Proposals to Improve Accountability and Transparency

来源:Loving Sister   更新:2014-10-26 13:47:40   作者:Jack Heath
Opinion: Proposals to Improve Accountability and Transparency

Jack Heath
We live in a time of growing cynicism.  The symptoms include falling voter turnout and an increasing lack of confidence in government.  Having been on Council for many years, I can see reasons.  The arena debate, with many decisions made in-camera, cast a pall over the City.

The arena was not our finest hour.  It was my motion in December 2013 which defeated the arena proposal by 11-2; it should not have gotten that far.  Looking back, I don’t think we would have been dealing with such a risky financial proposal with so much taxpayer opposition had the public and more Council voices been heard early in the process.  The arena’s “Proposed Financial Framework” should have died a quick death rather than a drawn out demise over 18 months.  Both the public and Council, myself included, were excluded from the discussion for over a year prior to the unveiling of the PFF in April 2012.  This shouldn’t happen again.

My recommendation: a Markham accountability and transparency package.  Our community wants more openness regarding Council’s activities. From where I sit, we also need more openness for Council regarding City initiatives.  Our target?  To be Ontario’s most accountable and transparent local government.  Here are some ideas for discussion.  They work best as a package.

A. Auditor General.  We had an AG.  When she left a few years ago, we didn’t re-appoint another.  Let’s get on with it.  Through an independent AG, residents know whether they are getting value for tax dollars.  Is money being spent properly?  More pointedly - was money wasted on the arena project?

B. Code of Conduct.  Council has one.  I was involved in its modernization.  The one-year review is in 2015.  The policy for staff and members of public boards and city committees needs similar scrutiny.  Each should fall under the jurisdiction of the Integrity Commissioner.

C. Collective Council.  High-level initiatives, whether projects of the Mayor or other Councillors and whether controversial or not, need more input from the public and the rest of Council in their early stages.  Discussions occur all the time, but when they move to the second stage, the project stage – many do not - there needs to be an established updating process for all of Council and the public.  Councillors generally know which initiatives are high-level and when they move into the project stage, and on these matters, Council needs to operate more inclusively.  I call it “A Collective Council.”  A team.  Not doing so insults the people of Markham and Councillors not in the loop.  We should not expect change to be easy.  Mandates to negotiate will have to be reduced and there will be impediments about privacy, legal advice, unnecessarily longer meetings, the role of staff, etc.  I am confident that, where there is a will to reform, there is a way.  If this is not the ultimate policy decision, how Council relates to the public and among itself, I don’t know what is!

D. Communications.  A number of standard initiatives under the Planning Act, such as new subdivisions, re-zonings and Committee of Adjustment applications, have been controversial.  We need improvements in notice language, content and distribution plus better signage.

E. Criminal Activity.  It should be a standard policy that any suspicion of illegal activity by a member of Council or staff should be referred to the police, to ensure greater trust in government.

F. Freedom of Information. The speed with which the City responds to FOI requests should be improved.  If citizens ask for information, the presumption should be that they would receive what they ask for in a reasonable period.  If there are overriding legal reasons why it is not possible, we should offer good explanations why the material cannot be released.  Markham should develop specific recommendations for Queen’s Park to consider as possible legislative changes to keep FOI costs down and minimize what is “blacked-out.”  I am not sure that the provincial FOI legislation, which leaves Council with little information about requests or input on staff responses, is 100% in the best interests of the public.  It seems to presume that Council generally does not want to release information; what if the reverse is true?

G. Integrity Commissioner.  Council recently appointed an Integrity Commissioner to investigate complaints about the conduct of Members of Council and determine whether there has been a violation of the Code of Conduct.  Good, but the public needs more information on the IC and his responsibility, the complaints process, and how they can get in touch with him directly.

H. Open Meetings.  Much criticism of the arena debacle related to the lack of open meetings and expensive reports not being available to the public.  In the section “Collective Council,” I stated, “High-level initiatives … need more input from the public and the rest of Council in their early stages.”  The debacle could have been avoided.  In some instances however, in-camera is necessary:
Advice from our Solicitor: “Why should we appeal this to the Ontario Municipal Board?”
Buying and selling of land: “Is there a problem with the land valuation?”
Personnel discussions: “Should we hire Ms. X or Mr. Y for the important job?”
Union negotiations: “Can we afford the escalation in the contract’s third year?”
All these have occurred.  Consequences of them being in open session could be detrimental to the interests of the City or specific individuals.
That is why in-camera is permitted.  However, closed meetings should be a last resort.  With too many in-camera meetings, citizens cannot meaningfully participate in the process of government because they don’t know what is going on.  We should be encouraging people to participate, not finding ways to avoid it, thus my suggestions for a new process when dealing with high-level initiatives.

I. PowerStream and MDEI:   Markham owns 34% of Powerstream and 100% of Markham District Energy (MDEI).  While these utilities are provincial and national leaders in their respective fields, we need to do a better job in communicating the benefit of our ownership and their financial returns, their contribution to Markham’s economic growth, and their role in advancing Markham’s sustainability objectives. 
J. Provincial Ombudsman.  Markham should support efforts at Queen’s Park to give investigative jurisdiction over municipalities to the Ombudsman of Ontario.  The standards and interpretation for a properly run municipality should be the same in all 444 municipalities.  The provincial service will provide more effective oversight of the operation of municipal governments than does the current, alternative process.

K. Salaries and Expenses.  Markham’s website should include information on the total salaries and expenses claimed for all 13 members of Council.  Taxpayers should know the remuneration of every member, whether it derives from Markham, York Region, or public and private boards to which the two Councils have appointed them.  Including all expense claims with details.  In addition, the site should note any corrections so that accountability is obvious.  In cases where explanations are not satisfactory, the matter should then go to the Integrity Commissioner.  Over the years I have worked to introduce improvements in our Council expense policy with some changes pending as this election drew upon us.  Our expense ceilings are relatively low at $8,000 with significant checks and balances however greater public scrutiny is invariably helpful.

Council Should Appoint an Independent Committee.  To develop this package, I recommend appointing an independent committee of experts and residents in early 2015 to report in 6 months.  Its meetings would be interspersed with public workshops, interim reports and an on-line consultative process.  Changes are also needed at York Region and I would like to submit the report to Regional Council on completion.

Conclusion.  Accountability and transparency go hand in hand.  Markham needs more of both.  

Jack Heath is the Imcumbent Deputy Mayor and a Regional Councillor in the City of Markham
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