By Todd Williams, Turner Valley Rate Payers Board
There is a saying that goes something like this: “either that or a ham sandwich”. I did a bit of digging and found an explanation. It means “yes, it’s as obvious and simple as a ham sandwich is obvious and simple” (John Burgess a former US Foreign Service Officer turned blogger and author).
I have frequent conversations with Turner Valley Town Councillors. During one of those discussions with Councillor Cindy Holladay we chatted about how I might help folks learn about government transparency and accountability. Cindy came up with this great analogy – “It is like a sandwich. Accountability and Transparency are the two pieces of bread and effective public communication is the ham”. Her point is that, if the public are not being properly informed about the steps taken by government to be transparent and accountable then the job of open and transparent government is not complete.
Here is some information for the “ham” portion of our sandwich.
The following is an excerpt from one of our articles that was recently posted on our website (https://turnervalleyratepayers.ca/municipal-government-communications-a-failure-to-plan-is-a-plan-to-fail/): “Sound communication planning and execution can help to engage stakeholders positively; provide for better relationships and understanding; reduces chaos, duplication of effort, wasted time and money; and improves the inputs needed to make wise service delivery decisions. Communication is going to happen – planning for it helps to build trust and confidence in the organization.”
If Communication is the ham, what about the bread? What about the accountability and transparency? What do these terms mean regarding Municipal Government? Does transparency mean that the staff at town hall will only respond to Freedom of Information and Privacy Protection (FOIPP) requests? Does it mean that a CAO gets to decide who gets information based on his or her opinion of the request or the requestor? If this is our “Turner Valley” idea of transparency, then we truly are a “low information” community. My reason for saying community is that residents, as well as staff and Town Council, are responsible for what is acceptable behavior at town hall. We are all included when determining what we accept as appropriate behavior from municipal government.
Transparency means that what is being done at town hall should be fully open to public view. There’s no question that some information may be kept from public view such as specific personnel issues, exact salaries of staff and some, limited, legal issues. How should government determine the information that it can’t share? How can residents tell if government is being transparent? The test for this is set out in the FOIPP Act. If you contact Municipal Affairs they will tell you that the test for keeping secrets at town hall is that the information if released would “cause harm”. Here is a list of things that do not meet the definition of harm as defined by the Act:
- Examples of administration incompetence
- Administrations incomplete work
- Bad council decisions
- Councils inability to make a decision
- Mayor or Council behaving badly toward each other or the public
- Facts about town services
- Poor or malfeasant procurement policy or practice
- Financial matters including management letters from Auditors
There are very few items that should be kept secret by a municipal government. Some individuals in government, who want to obscure the public view and be non-transparent, can and do find ways to accomplish their desired outcome. A classic example is the use of closed meetings. There is a section of the FOIPP Act that is frequently used by municipal governments to hide behind closed doors and make decisions outside public view. They intentionally ignore the single, important test for “in camera” or closed sessions: Will the information cause harm? As a community, we should expect and demand that our new, well-paid Chief Administrative Officer and our Council build a corporate culture of transparency. Making excuses to hold closed meetings and hide information from the public is simply not acceptable.
So, what of accountability? This is a bit more difficult to explain because its first component is one of personal ethics and morals. Rich Harwood of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation puts it this way: “Accountability starts when you are getting dressed for work in the morning and you stand in front of the mirror and say to your self “what promises have I made people and am I living up to those promises? What claims can I make about my work and are those claims real and are they authentic and are they truthful, do they have integrity?” If people working in the public sector want to truly engage with the public and have the respect of the public, then they need to be accountable for their actions and decisions. They need to be public about the fact that they don’t know everything and that they have to change directions and do things differently.” Accountability, according to Mr. Harwood, starts by being accountable to yourself for your actions as well as to others including the public.
In broader terms accountability means that the employees of the Town, as well as Mayor and Council, should clearly answer to all the residents of Turner Valley. They need to accept responsibility for the decisions they make and be willing to accept the consequences. Sometimes the consequences are unpleasant and publicly embarrassing but that is what accountability is. We all make mistakes and errors. Accountability means that they will take responsibility for actions taken. How about us as tax payers? We are responsible for the decisions we make in response to decisions for which we are not responsible. As a tax payer and a member of this community please decide to demand accountability, transparency and communication from the Town of Turner Valley. Like our ham sandwich , these three are relatively simple in concept but not easy to accomplish. It will take a significant alteration to the culture at the town office. The voters of Turner Valley made it clear that it is what we expect from this new Council. It would be as rewarding and satisfying a tasty sandwich if we can insist on the delivery of this new culture. A wise Councillor once suggested an A.C.T. committee be formed. Think of how great it would be if we had a Committee dedicated to Accountability, Communications and Transparency.
About the Turner Valley Rate Payers Association
The Turner Valley Rate Payers Association is a group of concerned citizens and rate payers. We are working to improve our community and help Turner Valley become a sustainable town for families to live and grow in. We believe that we can assist the local government to be transparent and accountable to the people who pay the rates and taxes.