How the city administration is doing it their way with your money

By Gerry Barker

September 25, 2017

Let’s start today’s commentary by introducing the late Marshall McLuhan, the University of Toronto Philosophy Professor whose 1967 book: “The Medium is the Message,” predicted the Internet and its effect on sharing information globally.

“One of the effects of living with electric information is that we live habitually in a state of information overload. There’s always more than you can cope with,” he said.

“By shaping how societies obtain information, the medium (television, telegrams, telephones, etc) shaped people as much, if not more, than the message did.”

This got me thinking about how, in 2017, the city administration uses the Internet to communicate to the citizens. Aside from the Internet, there are other methods of communicating including the old reliable telephone, landline or cell, sending a letter by snail mail or reading the city-paid City News advertising pages in the local weekly. Believe me, those last two methods are old school communications. They are one-way communications that in some cases require a response.

But if a citizen is computer savvy and can send a message to the administration, most times they get a response.

Here’s a recent example of what I am talking about.

Last Thursday I sent the following request to City Clerk. Stephen O’Brien.

Hello Stephen:

I would appreciate a list of all the closed-session meetings conducted by council since September 1, 2016.  It would be useful to also include the reason for the meeting and the authority per the Ontario Municipal Act.

I realize your staff is busy and I’m in no great rush. The closed-session meetings are now published so I may pick up the current meetings as they are announced.

I was talking with a former councillor and he said that when he was on council, whenever a closed-session was held, there was a statement following, outlining the decisions made during that meeting. Understandably, the discussions, details and identity of the speakers would not be included in the brief post-meeting synopsis.

In your opinion is that option still available to the public?

Thanks for your assistance,

Best, Gerry Barker

Here is Mr. O’Brien’s reply sent the following day. It has be slightly edited for space.

To: Cam.Guthrie, Derrick.Thomson, Trevor.Lee, me

Good afternoon Mr. Barker,

Thank you for your email.

Our meetings, associated agendas and minutes, are all posted on line. I’ve provided easy to access links to this information based on meeting type below in order to assist with your request/inquiry:

Council and Council Planning Meetings

Council and Council Planning Meetings (for year 2017)

http://guelph.ca/city-hall/mayor-and-council/city-council/agendas-and-minutes/

Council and Council Planning Meetings (for years 2016 – 2017)

http://guelph.ca/city-hall/mayor-and-council/city-council/agendas-and-minutes/council-meetings/

Committee of the Whole and past Standing Committees

Committee of the Whole (for year 2017 and 2016)

http://guelph.ca/city-hall/mayor-and-council/committee-of-the-whole/

Former Standing Committees (pre Committee of the Whole)

http://guelph.ca/city-hall/council-and-committees/committee-archive/standing-committees/

All of the information/data you require, including the open meeting exception cited, is included on meeting agendas. In fact, section 239 (4) of the Municipal Act requires that before holding a meeting or part of a meeting that is to be closed to the public, a municipality shall state by resolution the fact of the holding of the closed meeting and the general nature of the matter to be considered at the closed meeting.

As such, our agendas list the following as an example:

Authority to move into closed meeting

That the Council of the City of Guelph now hold a meeting that is closed to the public, pursuant to the Municipal Act, to consider:

C-CON-2017.9  Public Appointments to the Environmental Advisory Committee, Water Conservation and Efficiency Public Advisory Committee, and Wellbeing Grant Allocation Panel Section. 239 (2) (b) of the Municipal Act related to personal matters about an identifiable individual, including municipal or local board employees.

The vote and associated result of that vote with respect to this resolution to close a meeting to the public is contained within the meeting minutes as such:

Authority to Resolve into a Closed Meeting of Council

  1. Moved by Councillor Van Hellemond
  2. Seconded by Councillor Allt
  3. That the Council of the City of Guelph now hold a meeting that is closed to the public, pursuant to Section 239 (2) (b), (e) and (f) of the Municipal Act with respect to personal matters about an identifiable individual, including municipal or local board employees; litigation or potential litigation, including matters before administrative tribunals; and advice that is subject to solicitor-client privilege, including communications necessary for that purpose. Carried

To answer your question about the process following a closed meeting, Council does offer a statement following the closed portion of the meeting. This statement is listed on our agendas as “Closed Meeting Summary” and generally occurs either before or after the initiation of the open meeting (i.e. before or after O Canada, the moment of silent reflection, etc.). These statements are also captured in our minutes, an example of which is as follows (my emphasis added):

Closed Meeting Summary

Mayor Guthrie spoke regarding the matters addressed in closed and identified the following:

C-CON-2017.9  Public Appointments to the Environmental Advisory Committee, Water Conservation and Efficiency Public Advisory Committee, and Wellbeing Grant Allocation Panel

Direction was given to staff and recommendations will be introduced later in the meeting when the public report is discussed.

Some additional general information that you may find helpful:

The City maintains a Closed Meeting Protocol to assist Council and staff with questions relating to closed meeting processes. This protocol is available here and is accessible from the City’s Accountability and Transparency page online.

  • The City’s Procedural By-law, which is also available online, codifies many of the above mentioned requirements and actions. The specific section(s) (see section 4.6) the by-law can be referenced here.

I trust this information answers your questions and assists you with your request.

Thank you and enjoy your weekend,

Stephen

Let the search begin

Now I must admit, Mr. O’Brien’s response was thorough but requires some time spent on searching the various components of the response to obtain the information requested. I’m still working on it.

Did Marshall McLuhan ever believe in 1967 that the Internet would transform the distribution of knowledge and the way it was managed to support his philosophical theories?

There are 131,000 people living permanently in Guelph today. Add to that, the more than 20,000 students who attend the University of Guelph for approximately eight months of the year. That group is, for the most part, computer savvy and active on the Internet. That is not the case for many of the permanent residents. In that group, the availability, use and operation smarts using a computer, drops off dramatically. I know because I can’t keep up with tech changes and procedures.

This brings us to the City of Guelph’s website. It is extremely difficult to navigate even by highly qualified computer users. Using a computer requires a high level of proficiency, if for no other reason, to keep up with technological change.

Using a computer is not like riding a bicycle but more like training to be a concert pianist.

The city website is designed to serve the needs of the administration not the citizens. I’m not suggesting to dumb it down but make it open and easier to access. It should be built to serve the citizens not the other way around.

Today, the printed word reflects the diminishing interest in newspapers and magazines

This brings us to the printed word as seen by the younger demographic as being old school communications. The demise of the Mercury is an example of this.

The Guelph Tribune is the sole community print outlet in the city. It has the benefit of having the administration of being one of its largest customers. The city’s full-page ads running in every issue labelled “City News,” average 5 full pages per week. Assuming that pages are deeply discounted at $1,000 that comes to a tasty $260,000 a year account, paid by the citizens.

But that’s only the beginning. There is the city communications staff, Legal department, Finance and Clerk’s office all contributing to the content of those City News ads. The Tribune staff can put the material together but the source has to be generated by the city staff.

In my opinion, this is a waste of the public’s money. Why, you may ask? Because this give the administration complete control of the medium. The editorial content of the twice-weekly paper. is dominated by friendly reports as distributed by the city communications department. When was the last time you read a story in the Tribune that was critical and exposed operational mistakes and loss of public funds?

The owners of the paper will never bite the hand that feeds them. That’s why the paper is rarely critical of the administration. The medium is indeed the message and the city administration owns it.

It’s reflective of the cultural malaise of the administration. They can think of 50 ways to spend your money on their pet projects, but rarely take steps to save your money.

It will not change unless the people decide to change it and to elect knowledgeable, responsible candidates with the political will to change the pernicious culture that has existed for too long at City Hall.

You know we have a problem when the Mayor, apparently assisted by consultant, the Hildred Group, to prepare his explanation why closed-session meetings are important to the public’s business but then only sends the explanation to his council and four other people.

I guess Marshall McLuhan got it right? The medium is the message.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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