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Abbotsford Fails 9 of 11 Best Practices for Open Meetings

Abbotsford Council Fails 9 of 11 BC   Ombudsperson Best Practices for Open Meetings

With all this lip service being given to transparency at City Hall I have to wonder if any of the candidates even know what it means. As far as I can tell, the records of the incumbents don’t support any semblance of transparency. Well, Henry Braun is the new kid at the table and has claimed he has pushed for more transparency but has been blocked so he should be given the benefit of doubt. Bruce Banman is also new so he could be given some leeway but there are many instances where he has not exercised the transparency that is available to him. For instance, he selected the members of the Homeless Task Force that did not include many of the care community that would have been very valuable and included some that have questionable connection to the issue. (I credit him with the selection because he took credit for the Task Force in the announcement). So I have to doubt his commitment to transparency.

What are The Legal Restrictions

First it is important to understand that The Community Charter (the CC) makes it very clear that all meetings of council (including committee meetings) must be open to the public except as provided in the CC. And that no bylaws can be passed in closed meetings. The CC does allow some things to be decided by resolution in closed meetings but the way I read it (as does the BC Ombudsperson), preference is to doing as much in public as possible.

We often hear that some items have to be discussed in closed meetings by law. I have heard reference to the three “Ls” – Legal, Labour, Land. Well, the Community Charter (the CC) doesn’t really require the three Ls to be dealt with in closed meetings.

Required Closed Meetings

In fact, there are only 5 subjects the CC requires be dealt with in closed meetings and I’ve provided a shortened version below.  I’ve tried to remove the legalese to make it more readable but in doing so I probably  have altered the legal meaning so don’t use this as legal.

  1. A request under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act,
  2. Confident negotiations with the federal and/or provincial government,
  3. Investigation under the Ombudsperson Act,
  4. A matter that other legislation requires the public be excluded,
  5. Audit info for the Auditor General for Local Government Act.

As you can see the five subjects that must be discussed in closed meetings relate to rather boring subjects that would have little interest for most of us. These aren’t what I’d refer to as effecting the transparency of our Council.

Meetings that May be Closed

Most of the lack of transparency comes from an overly zealous use of the section allowing that meetings may be closed to the public. The CC provides 15 instances where council meetings MAY be closed – not that it HAS to be closed. I won’t detail them all but they include discussing items that council may not wish to disclose to the public – such as land, legal and labour.

Sometimes it make sense to not publicize the discussions: such as negotiating contracts with labour but after the contract is signed I think it would be appropriate to provide the contract info to the public. After all, if the contract is for more than $75k per annum, it has to be published in the yearly Statement of Financial Information. Purchasing land would be another instance where the public should know what land has been purchased by the City. The info is readily available to anyone with a Land Titles account.

As for legal, I think it would be appropriate to disclose who made the decisions to pursue certain courses of action. For instance, the courts recently denied the City’s motion to disallow the Drug War Survivors to represent the homeless in their case claiming wrongful eviction from Jubilee Park. The City has decided to file an appeal of this ruling but won’t reveal who authorized the appeal. I think that the public should know who authorized filing the appeal.

Current Practice of Abbotsford Council

The current practice of Abbotsford Council is to provide a notice that the meeting is to be closed and to list the sections of CC that provides for closure of the meeting. There is no information on the topic to be discussed so the public can only speculate what is being discussed.

During my research, I have discovered dozens of instances where decisions have been made in closed meetings with no record that such a resolution has been passed. I have been stymied at trying to figure out why the City has taken certain actions because the decision cannot be discussed. Some of these have been so mundane such as the purchase of land near Mill Lake Park.

Best Practices Guide

To help local governments understand and follow the principles of open government, the BC Office of the Ombudsperson produced a Best Practices Guide for Local Governments in 2012. It lists 11 Best Practices for closed meetings. I have provided a list of them below and a pass/fail grade for the Abbotsford Council.

Abbotsford Report Card

 

Best Practices (Closing a Meeting)
 
Best practices with respect to closing a meeting include:
  • using paragraph 90(1)(n) if there is reason to question whether it is necessary to close a meeting

F

  • providing as much detail as possible about the basis for closing the meeting without undermining the reason for closing the meeting

F

  • including in the resolution to close a meeting a description of each distinct matter to be discussed and the authorizing provision

F

  • reading the resolution to close a meeting aloud

P

  • stating whether council will reconvene in an open meeting at the end of the closed session

P

Best Practices (Conducting a Closed Meeting)
 
Best practices with respect to conducting a closed meeting include:
  • restricting discussion to subjects that were authorized by the resolution to close the meeting

F*

  • whenever possible, avoiding passing resolutions in closed meetings

F

  • keeping a detailed record of closed meetings

F*

Best Practices (After a Closed Meeting)
 
Best practices with respect to actions after a closed meeting include:
  • complying with the provisions of FIPPA

F

  • establishing a process and assigning responsibility to specific staff for reviewing and releasing minutes of closed meetings and related information no longer requiring confidentiality

F

  • releasing as much information as possible as often as possible once confidentiality is no longer required

F

Note

The principles of open government require that information is readily available to the public. Thus I have given council an F* if I do not know whether they are following the Best Practice.

These Best Practices were published in September 2012. Council has had 2 years to implement these practice and yet has failed to do so. These practices don’t only apply to council meetings but also to committee meetings and from my experience committee meetings would fail  all 11 of the Best Practices.

My Resolution

When elected, the first motion I will put before council will be to enact all 11 Best Practices for council and its committees.

Abby News Candidate Profile

Abbotsford News asked candidates to complete a questionnaire. Our answers were published on their website and in last Friday’s newspaper. However, my answers aren’t accessible on the mobile version of their website and the published version edited the questions and responses. I am posting the original questions and my responses here.

ABBY NEWS CANDIDATE PROFILE

Name: David Sahlstrom

Party affiliation (if any):

Education: Bachelor of Science in Agriculture – BSc(Agr), Master of Business Adminstration – MBA, Professional Agrologist (PAg)

Occupation: Partner in Everett House Bed & Breakfast, Sahlstrom & Associate Business Consulting and David Sahlstrom Consulting (Chief cook and bottlewasher, Business Management Consultant, Environmental Agrologist)

Previous political experience: None

Residency (city/neighbourhood): Everett Rd, Abbotsford

Community involvement: MSA Museum Society, Arts Council, donated to various community groups, worked on the HST repeal referendum.

Marital status/children: Married with 3 children

Contact phone number: 604-309-6301

Email: David@DavidSahlstrom.ca

Social media: www.DavidSahlstrom.ca, Facebook/David Sahlstrom

Please answer the following question as briefly as possible, not exceeding one sentence.

What do you feel are the three key issues Abbotsford voters should be considering in this civic election?
  1. Voters should consider how the candidates will support their own vision and dreams for Abbotsford such as the level of taxation and user fees, growth and development, protection of the environment, caring for the poor and needy, provision of services, and the support and empowerment of the various communities in Abbotsford.
  2. Voters should ask themselves why they should vote for incumbents who have supported various initiatives that the voters have rejected such as Plan A, The Heat, Stave Lake Water, YMCA, etc.
  3. Voters should consider the qualifications of the candidates to carry out the responsibilities of Councillor in critically examining the issues, evaluating them with respect to the responsibilities of local government and the vision they hold for the future of Abbotsford.

Please answer the following questions in no more than 300 words in total.

What’s your plan to deal with homelessness in Abbotsford?

I would work with the other members of council to develop a plan with my recommendations being:

  • Re-examining the decision to hire a Homeless Coordinator as the City has no experience or expertise in this area.
  • Striking a homeless committee that included homeless representatives, the care communities and provincial and federal agencies with the terms of reference to coordinate the work and that the City provide assistance to this committee.
  • Until adequate housing supply is provided, we need to provide a location where the homeless could camp and engage the care communities to provide services to it.
  • Instruct the APD to end their policy of dislocating and dispersing while maintaining law enforcement.

Until we as a society can provide the needs of this marginalized community, we should not discriminate or harass them.

How would you make city hall more accountable and transparent?

I would move to:

  • hold all meetings in public to release to the public all decisions and discussions that are allowed by law,
  • record council committee meetings making them available to the public – possibly as podcasts or video.
  • restructure the committees so that they are more accessible to the public with City staff supplying more of a support role.

I will, whenever legal, discuss the issues in public and make known the reasons supporting my votes.

Are changes required in local municipal spending? If so, what are they and how would you address them?

Abbotsford spends money in many areas that are not part of the core responsibilities of local government and we need to examine bylaws, programs and spending to determine how they align with our responsibilities as well as examining not only immediate costs but the long term benefits and liabilities.

As residents of Abbotsford we shouldn’t be paying for the costs of development. There is good development and bad development and we should learn to tell the difference so we can say no to the bad development.

We need to engage, support and empower the communities in our City – the Business, Arts, Culture, Heritage, Care, Social, Environment etc. to enhance our quality of life.

Drug War Survivors

Yesterday I attended a meeting of the Drug War Survivors at their invite. These are an incredible group of people that have survived addiction. These are the group that the BC Courts have ruled can represent the homeless in Abbotsford in their case for redress.  I was awed at how they are trying so valiantly to deal with the struggles in their lives.

I was given the opportunity to present my platform to the group but I was more interested in engaging with them so I asked them to ask questions and tell me what they need. The discussion was incredible and some had incredible insights.

One of the things I learned was that things that may seem to be appropriate in living in a community pose such problems and barriers to others.  One example was the Good Neighbour bylaw that makes it illegal to sleep in a car. If someone has lost his/her home but has a car, where can he/she sleep? Making a it illegal to sleep in a car just seems so mean spirited. In an effort to make our neighbourhoods more pleasant, our bylaw has just made it more difficult for those less fortunate.

A thought occurred to me. We celebrate those who go to a far away land to care for the poor – building homes, providing clothing, helping educate them. Is there any real difference between those afar who are poor and marginalized by their society and those here at home?  As I have learned, there are not enough services and opportunities for them to get off the street and not enough support to help them become productive.

The time I spent there was very rewarding and I was blessed by it. I still think we should be careful that we are not enabling their addiction but there is so much more room for compassion from me and, I think, from Abbotsford.

Each candidate for Abbotsford Council was asked to complete a questionnaire. In support of my commitment to openness and transparency, I am posting the questions and my answers here.

  1. Do you recognize, as the BC Supreme Court and the BC Human Rights Tribunal have, that the DWS is the representative of the rights, needs and aspirations of the most marginalized and vulnerable population in Abbotsford?

 I recognize the BC Supreme Court and the BC Human Rights Tribunal have given the DWS the right to represent the homeless of Abbotsford. I also recognize the homeless are in need, that society has the responsibility of addressing those needs and that all people deserve to be treated fairly and with respect.

  1. Do you believe an informal resolution process i.e. healing process with the DWS would be more effective than continuing to defend the many, complex and expensive court cases the City is currently engaged in with the DWS and the very individuals who have been most injured by the City’s actions and excluded from all other discussions about them.

 I believe that the adversarial legal process is an inappropriate way to produce an effective solution to a problem that affects both the marginalized homeless and those that have homes. The homeless are in need and if those needs cannot be met they should not be discriminated against. If the DWS believes a healing process would be effective, it is Abbotsford’s   responsibility to consider and participate in it.

  1. Do you believe that the Abbotsford Police Department strategy of displacing and dispersing the homeless is either effective or appropriate?

 The strategy of displacing and dispersing is little more than discrimination and harassment. However, the APD has the responsibility to uphold the law and the homeless must recognize that breaking the law has consequences.

  1. Do you agree with the City of Abbotsford’s Crime Prevention Plan which states that drug use, drug possession, and drug dealing are directly related to organized crime?

 The legislative environment has determined that drugs are illegal and that their use, possession, and dealing are illegal. It is the responsibility of the APD to uphold the law. The degree to which these are directly related to organized crime is debatable and I don’t have the data to argue. However, addiction whether to legal or illegal substances is an illness. As such whether or not drugs are illegal, the problems of addiction need to be addressed. 

  1.  Is a solution to homelessness in Abbotsford even possible without dealing with the needs of the 60 -80 percent of the homeless population which self identifies as drug addicts and users?

 Each of those that are homeless is an individual and has a unique story. Each has unique needs and a unique road to recovery. For some, the road may begin with a home first but for others a home will do no good. There are agencies that have the funding and provide housing opportunities. The role of Abbotsford should be to work with the care community, the agencies responsible for health and housing and the homeless to engage, support and empower them.  

  1. Would you support an academic study, performed by world class authorities on marginalized people and homelessness in Abbotsford in order to come up with new directions and solutions?

In my opinion, a study is not needed and would keep the homeless where they are for longer than necessary. I believe there is a solution that could be implemented sooner. A solution developed by the homeless, the care community, and the agencies that can provide the help. It begins with respectful dialogue between them, building trust, working together and assuming responsibility.