Political Analyst and Observer, Bill Longworth's, Weekly "Eye on City Hall" Columns, as published in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada's Oshawa Central Newspaper

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Plan to Improve Transparency and Accountability at Oshawa City Hall

“Eye on City Hall”

A column of Information, Analysis, Comment, and unfiltered opinion
Bill Longworth, City Hall Reporter
September 13, 2010

Public trust in politicians is at an all-time low and changes have to be made to bring more honour and trust to politics at all levels.

Too often, politicians, once elected, forget that they are the servants of the people and act too secretly, often spending public monies with reckless abandon leaving scarce little in taxpayer’s pockets.

Federal, Provincial, and Local Oshawa politicians, all of whom voted to deny detailed publication of their expense records, simply raises questions about politician’s honesty and responsibility in spending public monies. Non-disclosure simply raises “smells” of irresponsible spending on personal entitlements.

Often, politicians will say one thing for public consumption around election time, and act quite the opposite way when their actions are hidden from the public.

Mayoral Candidate Louise Parkes, for example, has received a lot of press in calling for a 5% reduction in political salaries. Less publicized is the fact that Louise Parkes took salary and expense increases of 54% (18% annual increase) over the first 3 years of her present 4 year term going from salary/expense totals of $40,800 in 2006 to $62,469 in 2009 with 2010 totals not yet in, whose expense spending was always among the highest on Oshawa Council, and who called on Council for increased office budgets to cover her travel expenses. Her actual practice in office is quite the opposite of her “restraint pitch” to the voters. Her 54% salary/expense increase windfall contrasts over the first three years of her current term sharply to the 6.56% inflation rate and the 13% increase in taxes over the same period. We have no need for this kind of dishonest deception.

Under my leadership, we will have a new kind of politics in Oshawa---open, honest and transparent, which seeks public input, which cuts waste and taxes, which publishes itemized and dated political expense records with nothing hidden from the public. I want every member of my council to be concerned only with the public good they can sow, not the rewards they can reap.

Increased transparency and accountability will be a key objective in a new council under my leadership, and we will implement specific practices and policies to attain this objective.

We’ll start with scheduled public question periods as part of every council meeting. Within defined time constraints, no member of the public and no question or topic of city business will be blocked from holding politicians answerable and accountable to the public. All such public questions and input and political/staff responses will become part of the public record in the official minutes of the meeting and will be televised without political censure. Further, questions deemed significant enough by the press, will no doubt receive additional press coverage.

Under my leadership, there will be no blocking of citizen input or hiding of information---indeed we’ll try to seek input in as many ways as possible. This will be a real participatory democracy where citizens know they can have meaningful input. We’ll set a model for other local councils to emulate throughout the province. There’ll be no more of asking voters an important question and then saying it was not Council’s role to inform the people as the Mayor declared in regards to the Ward/General Vote Plebiscite Question.

Presently every council meeting is preceded with an “in-camera” component and Oshawa City Council has been censured by the Provincial Ombudsman for illegally conducting some public business in private. In Camera meetings will cease except under the strict Provincial Guidelines that preclude public discussion of personnel, legal, or contract matters that might be jeopardized by public disclosure. Furthermore, these meetings will not precede council meetings but will result in a recess of council when appropriate agenda items come up.

All city business will be conducted in public. I have evidence, for example, of council vote outcomes before they took place. I expected to address city council one night, and Councillor Brian Nicholson told me before the break that I wouldn’t get a chance to address council, despite being on the agenda. Following the break, he moved that my request to speak be received for information which was carried on a council vote thus denying me the chance to be heard. This obviously had been decided “in camera” before the meeting for Nicholson to be able to confidently disclose the future vote result close to an hour before it happened. This was illegal according to Provincial Law.

In terms of openness, all letters to the Mayor and Council will be linked in both committee and council minutes where they are discussed, to allow the public ease in following issues. Presently, such letters are hidden sufficiently to hide ratepayer input and concerns from the public domain. At best, the issue is voted on at council, but supporting letters are only found on the committee agendas. At one time, I wrote a letter to the Mayor and Council and it never appeared on an agenda. When I inquired about this, the Clerk informed me that she had made a decision not to include it. Can you imagine? My letter to the Mayor and Council was censured out by the Clerk! Makes you wonder just who is in charge!

In addition, Council Minutes and Agenda items are insufficiently described to allow the interested public to follow along. I will insist on all agenda items and minutes being described more fully so as to facilitate public understanding and participation. I would mount complete agendas on the city web page save for confidential matters.

I will set up more vehicles for public input and control of the significant business of the city. No major expenditure of taxpayer money, such as the demolition and rebuilding of city hall or the GM Centre, will take place without public support on a ballot question at election time. Such ballot questions will define specifically the projected average taxpayer cost for the project and will require public support to proceed.

Similarly, I would want public approval at election time for all increased benefits, perks, and allowances for politicians. No longer would they be able to vote themselves bigger entitlements at your expense without your approval. No more salary increases, no more MBA’s, no more increased office budgets, no more lifetime health/pension benefits, no more giant retirement allowances, no more $100 a week tax free auto allowances---no more!…no more!…no more without your approval.

I would want all votes recorded and voting records on significant matters summarized and published on the city web site at election time. Politicians would seek re-election on their voting records. Presently politicians do not want to take responsibility for unpopular votes like the purchase of the Cullen Miniatures, their salary increases, their lifetime health benefits, their support for the general vote vs. ward vote, their approval for huge expenditures like city hall renewal or demolitions of arenas, etc. Such long term record keeping and disclosure policies would force all politicians to take more responsibility for their votes and would not allow them to later deny their vote for unpopular issues or unsuccessful ventures. Voting records are important in American politics and easily recorded through computerization. We’d make them important here in Oshawa too!

In the city’s accounting systems, I’d want Ledger Sheets for all major projects and activities. Presently, on projects like the city hall reconstruction and renewal, only the major contract expenditures are traceable. Many other costs related to the project are hidden across various account numbers and departments all with incomplete descriptors so as to require forensic accountants to get a handle on total project costs. This hides real costs from the public. Problem is, it hides costs from everyone including politicians and bureaucrats. We still don’t have complete records on the costs or financing of the GM Center, making it impossible for taxpayers to know how much of our taxes are going annually to subsidize this project.

In the interests of transparency, I would want a detailed breakdown on our tax bills as to the actual taxpayer costs based on his/her specific assessment for each significant project or debt the city is carrying. Again computerization makes this detailed costing possible and is common in British Columbia. How much did city hall renewal specifically cost you based on your assessment? What are debt servicing costs and operating losses for the GM Centre specifically costing you based on your assessment? This kind of information will provide extra transparency and accountability and provide political incentive to keep debt under control.

We have to stop the madness at city hall. Under my leadership, we’ll have a new transparent and accountable place where the sun shines on everything that happens, and you’ll know that your voice is important at Oshawa City Hall.

Be sure to follow Bill’s radio broadcasts, “Eye on City Hall”,
every Monday, 6-9 pm EST, on http://www.ocentral.com/thewave/

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