Which is the Best City for Public Transparency?
As a recent observer and frequent opinionator on the affairs of the municipal councils of Mississauga and Brampton for a number of years, more recently looking into matters pertaining to municipal councils in Halton Region such as Oakville and Burlington, it fascinates me on the methods by which municipal governments deliver information pertaining to their public deliberations to residents.
After all, as corporations the local council is in effect the board of directors that approves budgets, policies and other measures that affect our daily lives. Yet ironically, it is one of the levels of government Canadian citizens pay attention to the least. I mean, how many people can say that they were municipal politics junkies before the era of Rob Ford? Or were prompted to pay attention to municipal affairs only when scandal or misfortune struck municipal leaders such as Mississauga's Hazel McCallion, Brampton's Susan Fennell or former Burlington mayor Cam Jackson?
This might delve into a realm of absolute boredom, but let's take a quick look at how four municipalities present the information regarding what their councils are doing to the public. Perhaps the means of delivery is as much important as to the content in explaining why fewer people pay attention to what goes on in municipal government.
Quick disclaimer, but municipal governments are allowed to hold 'in-camera' meetings on certain matters. So if you think there is a lack of transparency because there's certain issues we don't know the details about (such as the recent contract extension for Peel Police chief Jennifer Evans), it's not because they're not being transparent; it just opens up liability issues if confidential, private information about an individual were released.
I get the sense that while Brampton looks like it has taken some steps to present information in an open and more transparent way, there is still a lot of work to be done to improve things. Canada's ninth largest city has been in the news for a number of years, even still, for what seems to be a lack of transparency, accountability and oversight.
Brampton does do the standard things, like show the schedule of meetings and providing PDF formatted copies of their agenda and the minutes after the meeting concludes. And while Brampton recently provided on the city's YouTube channel all the council and committee meetings, it is not live streamed from YouTube but on Rogers, with all meetings posted at a later date.
The YouTube format makes it easier for writers and local journalists who did not attend council or committee meetings but went back later to watch them to reference and source the material. But the problem is the YouTube videos are shot through a stationary one-angle camera pointed straight at the chamber so all the council members are shown. It doesn't do close-ups when a certain councillor is speaking, so unless you are keenly following the proceedings or can see lips moving from a distance on video, you might be hard pressed to figure out who is speaking without rewinding and backtracking the clip.
UPDATE: As of the July 5 council meeting, the video on YouTube has been changed to show members of council and staff’s faces up close when they are speaking. Not sure if this was just one time, but I hope they keep this format in the future.
One other good idea that Brampton recently brought in was to post recorded votes that took place during the entire council term, so residents would be able to see how their councillor voted on every issue, ranging from major votes on the light-rail project to other minor procedural ones, in the interest of transparency.
But with the recent announcement of Rogers pulling out of local news coverage, what will happen to their broadcasts of Brampton city council remains to be seen.
It is somewhat surprising to see how much information is available from the City of Burlington when it comes to their municipal council's deliberations. It's not so much as to what city business is discussed, since it's similar to what other municipal councils discuss over their deliberations, but more on how that information is presented to the public.
For example, the city has archived at least since 2016 all the regular council and committee meetings, complete with the full agenda and the recorded sessions. What's interesting about the recorded sessions is that you can actually select an idea on the agenda that is being discussed and you will get directed to a clip of when members of council started speaking on that specific matter. If there are corresponding documents for particular sessions, those are provided in those selected segments in a separate PDF document that is linkable as well.
The current Burlington Mayor, Rick Goldring, also produced his own online show, called "Burlington Matters" where the Mayor himself interviews people about various issues important to Burlington. I guess being a former Green Party candidate Goldring understands the value of effective communication and providing proper information for residents.
Mississauga provides in one page the archived videos of meetings, as well as the schedule of what meetings are taking place and when, as well as the live stream link when a live meeting is available. Mississauga also tested a temporary measure whereby committee of adjustment meetings (those where minor variances to homeowners' property were approved) were also streamed online.
However, the archived videos could use a better medium, since it is one continuous recording for each meeting with no method of segregating out the bits relevant to a specific agenda item, like they do in Burlington. In my various articles about Mississauga city council meetings and planning/development meetings, I could provide the link to the video of the meeting itself, but would have to reference the timestamp on which particular agenda item was being discussed at what time. I've spoken to city staff before about switching up the live stream to a simpler format such as YouTube, and they've told me they've been looking into that but so far nothing concrete has been announced.
Mississauga also does recorded voting which is an improvement over the years before when votes were recorded by raising their hands. But I think the format in which they display on the screen in the council chambers of which way councillors voted could be slightly improved upon. Instead of just showing the seating arrangement and colour coding which councillor voted which way, just put up a list of names up and show did they vote yes or no (I believe they do that after in the written minutes, but this is for the benefit of those who actually live stream a council meeting or actually went to one in person). Some people might not remember or know which councillor is sitting in which seat that gets displayed on the graphic when votes are being recorded.
I think Mississauga will continue to provide live streaming of council meetings despite the Rogers pullout, but perhaps putting it on a better format like YouTube would be better for consumption by residents.
Besides providing the agenda, minutes and accompanying documentation for council and committee meetings on their website, Oakville's YouTube channel, besides what is being done in Burlington, is probably the second best format for displaying information because they not only post the archived council meetings for the past six years, but also upcoming meetings that will be live streamed from YouTube as well. On YouTube, if you subscribe, you can see notifications when you're using the site to see when meetings will start live streaming.
The town's YouTube channel also has a show mirroring Goldring's, called "Oakville Matters" and although not hosted by Oakville Mayor Rob Burton, he does appear as a frequent guest. But even YouTube has its limitations. Unlike Burlington, Oakville seems to have separated the links to documents and the agenda from the recordings on YouTube, and more specific meetings on matters like committee of adjustment and heritage advisory do not appear to be available on the town's YouTube channel.
In conclusion, Oakville and Burlington are providing information to the public in a format that is more user-friendly and detailed for residents' consumption. While the administrations in Mississauga and Brampton have gotten some areas right, there could be more done to make the information about council's activities more easily transparent and accessible.
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