By COLLIN GALLANT on October 15, 2021.
At the heart of a near-record number of council campaigns this year are calls for greater transparency at city hall.
Challengers rail against closed meetings and public consultations they say result in flawed decision making.
Administrators and incumbent councillors argue that isn’t true, and surveys show the city is doing more now than ever to engage the community and ease its processes.
Meetings can be closed for a number of reasons – personnel matters, land sales, those that contain sensitive business information, or to take part in initial planning – but any action taken by city council needs to be approved in an open council meeting.
The News recently surveyed all council candidates about issues of transparency.
Robert Dumanowski, who is seeking a seventh term on council, said concerns about transparency are common and he “agrees with them 100 per cent,” but the process laid out in provincial regulations works.
“The public wants to know that their representatives are held to a standard befitting of properly functioning public office. I’m personally glad that the citizenry is taking an interest in transparency – that’s what keeps the government honest and to account.”
Challenger Kelly Allard has been highly critical of senior administrators, saying they have been given too much authority and a pass by current council. That is especially in the case of Invest Medicine Hat, which handles grants and land sales and reports directly to city manager Bob Nicolay, not a council committee.
“If this is the way we do business, why would anybody want to do business with us?” she asked.
Shila Sharps says she would like to see a further audit of Invest MH activities and believes monthly town halls should be held.
Brian Dueck says an annual audit of in-camera meetings to certify the need to close meetings.
“This should ensure a default position of ‘open’ for meetings, knowing that closed meetings will need to be justified,” he said.
Ramona Robins told the News “the next steps belong to council,” citing the recent report into contracting out Invest Medicine Hat. It found administrators acted in accordance with internal policies, but also suggested ethics policies need to be updated.
“The report contains recommendations that the new council needs to immediately address,” she said.
Incumbent candidate Darren Hirsch said the issue is not transparency, but communication.
“The city and council are dutiful and doing great work but do not communicate our progress,” he said. “I want to draft an enhanced communication strategy to our citizens.”
Phil Turnbull, who routinely asks administrators to spell out new spending bylaws from the utility and infrastructure committee he chairs, says negotiations with private companies in the economic development require diplomacy until they are completed.
Cassi Hider says the city and council should better communicate what issues are coming up rather than outlining decisions as they are made.
Mandi Campbell encouraged citizens to stay connected with government decision making and that “we need to stay transparent and highly competitive through fair taxation.”
Jim Black said community opinion of “an old boys” club at council lives on because of the number of items announced at council after closed or administrator-only meetings.
“Trust is a difficult thing to regain once it is lost,” he said. “Do you really need a closed meeting for a discussion of a (new) boat launch.”
Nicholas Martin said the state of business development has much improved in the city over eight years, but residents are unsatisfied with the retail and service sector.
“The city is a much more appealing place to do business now, but are better jobs following?” he asked.
Jeremy Silver, the former head of the city centre development, agreed, saying incentive are in place to attract business, but there is a disconnect because small business owners feel they are being passed over.
“The city has been doing business the same way for 20 years; what got us here will not take us into the future,” he said.
Jay Hitchens says “the problem the city has is largely do to the optics brought on by its own inefficiency, perhaps even hubris,” he said.
Warren Pister says more should be known about city projects and city land sales with a standard listing for public view.
Justin Wright says the city’s process of making grand announcements before seeking feedback is a main source of frustration, evidence by confusion over the “Waterfront District,” announced last January, with construction underway, but also with the public feedback scheduled.
“You have to be clear and concise with what’s being presented to the public and share the ‘why'” he said.
Chuck Turner says the city permitting process is still too onerous.
Immanuel Moritz, agreed, saying the public’s dealings with the city have “certainly improved” but it is still daunting to take out permits or deal with city hall.
“Transparency is trite,” he said. “Council needs to focus on community engagement … sharing information and data about how and why decisions are made.”
Brad Gruszie says distrust is the result of flaws in the current economic development and land sales process.
Praveen Joshi said economic development can be difficult, and if companies fail the city can be blamed for issues beyond its control. He would like a new Invest contracting out process to take place.
Candidates Stephen Campbell and Bill Bergeson also said, in general, more information is needed.