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New powers will enhance municipal accountability

Posted on November 16, 2016 by Taber Times

Most municipalities probably wouldn’t want a team of provincial investigators nosing about in their business, looking to turn up a whiff of impropriety at the bureaucratic or elected level.

To be sure, while some will take a stand-offish approach based merely on their own indignance at being subject to various checks and balances, others, we can rest assured, will be more concerned because they are afraid what an investigation might turn up about shady backroom deals, hazy gentleman’s agreements behind closed doors, and the myriad thousand other petty corruptions that can take root when the unscrupulous secure power to be used or abused through a higher office.

Last month, the provincial government announced a move to give the Alberta Ombudsman the power to investigate municipalities. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi came out in direct opposition to the idea, suggesting his municipality already sports an auditor, whistleblower program and an integrity commissioner to investigate public complaints — ample checks and balances already in place, according to Nenshi, and one suspects this attitude to be relatively uniform across the province, especially among larger municipalities.

But in Alberta’s wild west of small and rural municipalities, where many of these checks and balances may not yet exist, Nenshi did acknowledge a value to the ombudsman’s new powers. Described on its website as “your voice of fairness”, the Alberta Ombudsman also responds to complaints of unfair treatment by provincial government authorities and designated professional organizations.

Those in the fourth estate have long derided the lack of accountability and transparency that accompanies municipal business almost as a matter of course in Alberta. While it can be argued that voters need no accountability save that of an election, this says nothing about the present conduct of the temporary dictatorship they just elected for another four years.

For example, topics discussed “in camera” — in private — are generally to be limited to subjects involving land, legal or labour. However, a long laundry list of loosely-worded FOIPP (Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act) exceptions muddy these waters to the point where almost anything could be justified as a discussion to be held behind closed doors.

More than this, despite lofty-sounding penalties in the Municipal Government Act for violating an in camera restriction, there is virtually no way to know what a municipal council might be discussing in camera, virtually no way to determine if an MGA violation was made or not, and virtually no way to ultimately hold them accountable even if they did — no records are made of in camera discussion, and sometimes there aren’t even resolutions passed to give a citizen the smallest idea just what their elected representatives might be doing behind closed doors.

Unfortunately, this can lead to abuse of the system, and the fostering of an attitude that it shouldn’t be about how little a council should be utilizing in camera discussion, but about how much they can get away with, despite only a tenuous link to any FOIPP exception. When municipalities drift into this perception, ultimately the citizen voter is the biggest loser, because in effect they’re placing you on a need- to-know basis — and you don’t need to know.

Citizens actually need to have the opportunity to witness and participate in the business of government, their government? What a revolutionary concept here in the 21st century. And while the media may sometimes hear whispers of impropriety at a municipal level, it is much more difficult to find anyone that is willing to actually go on the record to discuss corruption or improper activities, or to wag an accusing finger in a high-profile direction.

If handing new investigative powers to the Alberta Ombudsman manages to make a few unscrupulous municipal administrators or elected representatives think twice about paddling too deeply into the uncharted waters of financial or ethical impropriety, then it will be well worth the vocal protestations one might hear from the very officials who probably have the most to lose.

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