Still shrouded in mystery
Democracy may start with electing someone to public office, but it doesn’t end there.
It is the public’s responsibility to keep a close eye on what our elected representatives are doing in our name and with our tax dollars. The public’s ability to hold their leaders accountable is all that stands between democracy and authoritarianism.
To fulfill this responsibility, we need to know what our politicians are up to. In many cases, here in the Pontiac, we don’t.
In recent weeks, THE EQUITY has been taking a closer look at the extent to which local government operates behind closed doors. We have expressed concern about elected officials making decisions without being transparent on how and why those decisions are being made.
When asked, many of the Pontiac’s mayors acknowledge they can and want to do better. They say that the public needs to have a better understanding of what they are talking about at their monthly plenary meetings which are still held in private.
While such statements are encouraging, we have yet to see any real action to back up these words. Despite the occasional appearance of some progress, it appears old habits die hard.
A recent example involved a resolution passed at the last public meeting of the Pontiac MRC Council of Mayors, held in April, regarding Connexion Fibre Picanoc (CFP).
Because CFP is jointly owned by MRC Pontiac and several other entities, two representatives of MRC Pontiac sit on the CFP Board of Directors: Warden Jane Toller and Portage-du-Fort Mayor Lynne Cameron. Consequently, when the CFP Board of Directors makes a decision, it is brought back to the MRC Council for approval.
As reported in the April, 27 issue of THE EQUITY, the decision brought back to the MRC was to sell off the CFP assets. According to the resolution seeking the mayors’ blessing, there were three options considered by the CFP, of which selling the assets was but one. But at the public meeting of mayors, there were no questions raised as to what the other two options were. There was no discussion. There was only, in true MRC fashion, a quick show of hands signalling the resolution had passed. Clearly, if there had been a discussion on this matter, it must have taken place at the previous week’s plenary meeting held in private.
When asked by THE EQUITY what the other two options were, the warden declined to answer, but assured us she had chosen the best one. While this may well be the case, without further information it is impossible for a rate-payer, voter, journalist or any citizen to verify the claim independently. With all due respect to the warden, and we have a great deal, this is not how this is supposed to go.
The CFP resolution had been brought forward for consideration by elected officials at a public meeting. It revolved around the future of high speed internet in the Pontiac, a matter of considerable public interest. And it involved the disposition of assets purchased with public money. So it seemed not only reasonable to us to try to find out more, but nothing less than our job to do so.
Upon closer examination of the wording of the resolution it became clear that a background document had been written providing an analysis of the three options. Furthermore, said document was described as being attached to the resolution, forming an integral part of it. Here’s the actual wording of the resolution:
“Considering that three (3) scenarios were presented to the CFP Board of Directors in the document “Opportunity study of potential options concerning the future of the fibre optic network” attached hereto to form an integral part hereof.”
If there is a document that was the key input to a decision rendered by mayors in a public meeting, and forms an integral part of the very resolution by which they rendered it, shouldn’t it be publicly accessible?
We asked the MRC for the document and were told we would have to file an Access to Information request which would take two weeks to be processed, which we did. After the two weeks had elapsed, we were told by the MRC that they could not give us the document because it was a CFP document and we would have to get it from them, which we are still endeavouring to do.
We’ve talked to mayors who confirm that the matter was the subject of a briefing at the private plenary session the week before the public meeting, but no one would say a word about whether there was a discussion about the implications of selling the CFP assets or what the other options were?
It was a simple, reasonable question we set out to ask. It should have been a fairly straightforward matter of reporting the facts about what public officials are doing with publicly-owned assets. But the lack of transparency surrounding this file is striking.
And it prevents us from getting to obvious follow-up questions such as how did the CFP get to this point where selling off the assets is seen as the best option? Selling them off to whom? At what price? And what does the Pontiac stand to gain by this, or lose?
For now, all we can ask is why can’t the public see a document referenced by - and, apparently, integral to - a public resolution? Why can’t the public see the rationale for selling off public assets? Why the secrecy?
All we know is that when a public policy decision is brought into the public arena it needs to be ready to be tested by public scrutiny. So far, this one is failing the test.
It’s one thing to talk transparency; it’s clearly another to walk it.
Brett Thoms and Charles Dickson
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