Politicians should focus on keeping meetings open

By Greg Van Moorsel, London Free Press
Ontario taxpayers know from long experience it’s the closed-door meetings of civic politicians they most need to worry about.

Thanks to the power the digital revolution has given ordinary citizens, maybe their focus should be on open meetings.

Strict rules about what civic councils can and can’t do in private restrict those meetings to personnel and property issues. If the meetings stray into off-limits areas, or even if the politicians gather elsewhere in numbers that can form a quorum, taxpayers are on solid ground to complain. Sometimes, it takes Ontario’s top civilian watchdog to set the politicians straight.

But the digital revolution is rewriting the book on political transparency and accountability, especially in open meetings.

Ontario, as it turns out, has no province-wide rules on whether citizens can record or videotape open council meetings. Some allow it, some don’t. Some leave it up to their mayor. That’s a serious shortcoming when hand-held digital gadgets have made Internet broadcasters and publishers out of citizens interested in civics.

A telling case in point recently erupted in Adelaide Metcalfe, near London, Ont. There, as in much of rural Ontario, the backdrop was the hot potato of wind turbines.

A citizen activist had been videotaping the rarely attended council meetings and posting them on YouTube.

But the last time she tried it, the mayor asked her to stop. When she refused, he called in the OPP. A black-gloved officer made her shut down the camera, the whole episode later uploaded to YouTube.

The woman, who wasn’t disorderly, asked what law she was breaking. The police told her she was trespassing.

The mayor, despite having allowed the practice for weeks, said he stopped it because some politicians had grown frightened of speaking at all, lest they say something stupid.

For more than 20 years, the Ontario legislature has allowed its proceedings to be taped and televised. Even the justice system, while not allowing cameras in the courts, occasionally bows to digital technology by allowing the media to tweet — broadcast short messages over the Internet — from outer rooms during trials.

There’s a time and a place for civic politicians to be camera-shy. Open meetings aren’t one of them. It’s about time the rules caught up with the technology.

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Posted on May 18, 2012, in Ethics, Municipalities. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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