A follow-up Regarding Transparency at City Hall

On Monday, a notice of motion was brought forward titled “Keeping Tabs on City Council” calling for increased transparency. The requests of this motion, among other things, wanted look into the viability of providing a Hansard-style transcript of our meetings and to politicize the City’s website by providing the exact text of a vote – though I’m not sure if this actually meant the entire debate or the motion being voted on or both – as well as the corresponding votes.

Despite personal beliefs held by some, Council, with the help of our excellent City Clerks, is already very transparent. My role as Councillor is to provide policy direction for Administration to enable. I do this balancing what I think is right and best for the City and my ward, taking into account feedback on certain issues I have heard from all of you, and based on the platform I was elected on and how I told you I would approach the issues. There is a lot going on at the City and there is a constant stream of decisions to be made. Asking ordinary citizens to be informed on every single item of City business would be an impossible task while you all go about your own professional and personal lives. This is why we have a representative democracy and why you elect Councillors to govern on your behalf. Now you all have the right to a transparent government and I assure you we provide that.

Now on my website, on how I approach the issues that I referenced above, I state that I believe I owe you an explanation on how I voted on this issue. Again, you may not agree with me, but I’m going to give you my explanation. The motion that was presented had some decent ideas, identified by Council colleagues and the Mayor. If it can be done at no cost to the City, I have no problem with Council videos being held on the website for 8 years, being uploaded to social media networks and the like. I think the value will be fairly minimal. There are very few people who are going to want to go look back at a Council meeting from 8 years ago. I looked up the City of Toronto’s videos on YouTube and found that the videos average 614 views, and that’s propped up by the occasional video that approaches 9,000 views. During his opening, Councillor Farkas suggested that this may produce potential ad revenue for the City. Advertisers are not going to be rushing to pay money for 614 views from a city twice our size (Toronto Proper, not the entire GTA) and they certainly won’t be offering up any money to Calgary if we go this route.

My other issue with posting the videos elsewhere is they lose a lot of functionality. So again, no problem posting them if it doesn’t cost us anything, but they are posted on the City’s website. This happens once the minutes are confirmed. But once they are on the website, you can click on an agenda item and the video will jump right to the time that item is introduced and debated! That means that for whatever item you are looking for, you can watch the presentation/introduction, watch the debate, and watch the vote. This way you are able to get the full context as we will often provide an explanation. If you only care about the vote, that’s provided right there in the minutes. But you lose all context that way.

On this particular motion, I was worried about cost impacts. As you likely remember, just last week we unanimously passed the motion I introduced to immediately cut the budget by $60 million. At that same meeting, Councillor Farkas then stood up, without an ounce of research or thought, and said “let’s cut it by $120 million, rock and roll” despite the fact the motion he had brought forward called for $35 million in cuts. Literally one week later, he introduced a motion that talked about bringing in a stenographer to provide an official record, something that I was able to very quickly research, and find out that it would cost around $100,000 per year just for Council meetings. And I was VERY conservative on my time estimates and didn’t account for correction time, nor the City clerk who would need to spend a day going over corrections. This was a poorly thought out idea with no research done on the cost implications, put forward a week after we cut the budget.

During the introduction of the motion, a lot of phrases designed to get media soundbites and enrage the general public were used – “Unlocking the mystery of what happens in Council Chambers”, “deserve to know how you are being represented”, etcetera. There’s no mystery. The videos are live and then are provided online. Minutes with votes are provided. You can see exactly how you are being represented in Chambers, and I can assure you the representation does not stop from there. The transparency of Council is there. Everything is provided to citizens if they are so inclined to access the information. I voted against this motion because it was a doubling of the work that already exists, would potentially cost hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, and is truly seeking to address an issue that doesn’t really exist.

I know Councillor Farkas shared a brief clip from the discussion of his motion, but I disagree that this is transparency. It was a carefully selected soundbite from over 30 minutes of discussion. That is not transparency. Now, while the video has not yet been uploaded on the City’s website (and it will be!), I figured I would include the full debate, from start to finish, of his motion:

So let’s refocus on issues that are going to make a difference. If you have a suggestion, a concern, a complaint, please contact me or my office and we will listen. I’m all for engaged citizens, and the tools are out there for you to be as engaged as you like. If you want to know my thoughts on an issue or why I voted on something, just contact me and I will gladly share it with you. Issues that I believe are bigger, I will always comment on publicly through this blog or on social media. But we as a Council need to refocus on our task at hand which is to provide direction to operate this City and to help our economy rebound through strategic policy and direction that is then enacted by our Administration.

I can tell you that going forward in the coming months, I will be bringing forward a question for Administration that was raised by a constituent during Question period, I will be bringing forward a Notice of Motion in an effort to improve street cleaning (after much consultation with Administration and my Council colleagues), and I will be looking for savings and efficiencies in our budget ahead of the budget revisions in November to hopefully provide additional savings to businesses and homeowners.

As always, I welcome your thoughtful comments and concerns. You can share them with me here.