Council ignoring democracy in favour of in camera decisions
Perceptions by Gerry Warner
Our City Council, elected only a few months ago, has developed a bad habit – an in camera habit – that leaves the public in the dark when important or controversial decisions are to be made and democracy goes out the window.
This was the case in February when council decided in camera to decommission the Idlewild Dam and inform the public by press release why they made the decision. Except they didn’t do that. The release said the decision was based on “findings and recommendations” of the Dam Breach Inundation Study, but those findings and recommendations don’t appear anywhere in the release!
So what’s this? Government by press release? Surely the public deserves to know what the “findings and recommendations were? Do they justify tearing down the dam and draining Idlewild Lake – the main attraction of the park – for an unknown length of time? Maybe they do. But the public will never know because they weren’t let in on the decision. Does this council not trust the public to think for itself?
At a recent Sunrise Rotary meeting, I asked Mayor Lee Pratt if the Dam Breach Inundation Study was going to be made public. He didn’t give me a direct answer, but said the “highlights” of the study were in the press release. Read it yourself. It’s on the City’s web page. But the “findings and recommendations” aren’t there. All that appears are some fear-mongering comments about what might happen if the dam is breached which hasn’t occurred since the dam was built more than 80 years ago. Maybe the dam should be replaced on the basis of age alone. But we don’t know that because council made the decision in camera and didn’t bother to tell us the reasons.
That’s no way to run the farm! It’s also possible that the dam and it’s concrete core is still secure and the public doesn’t deserve to be deprived of Idlewild Lake for up to two years as Mayor Pratt said at the Rotary meeting. Draining the lake could also be fatal for the blue-listed, Western Painted Turtles that live in it and will be left without a home. Did council take that into consideration when they made their in camera decision? We’ll never know, but I’m thinking of making a Freedom of Information application to find out. Stay tuned.
Fast forward to the present and we have the simmering controversy over the City’s repurposing of its unused, heritage fire hall. For the record, I would like to see the ornate, old building repurposed as an art gallery if that’s feasible, but that’s not the issue here. Once again the issue is the process by which the City made this difficult decision. And you know the rest. It was made in camera by a council that lacks the courage and integrity to discuss controversial issues in public and instead chooses to hide behind closed doors and hand out another lame press release at the end of a council meeting to cover its tracks.
So what’s the purpose of City Hall? Is it a chamber where the public’s business is done in public? Or is it a medieval star chamber where the public is only fed what Mayor and Council want them to know? The Community Charter, which governs the actions of all city councils in the province, lists several clear reasons for holding meetings in camera. The fact that a decision is difficult or controversial is not among them.
I, therefore, lay down a challenge to this council. At a recent meeting of theColumbia Basin Trust’s Community Initiatives Committee, one City councillor recused himself from the meeting when a funding application was made by the Cranbrook District Arts Council to repurpose the fire hall, which indicates a potential conflict of interest. Did that councillor recuse himself again when council made its in camera decision to sell the fire hall to the private sector instead of retaining it for repurposing.
The public deserves to know.
Gerry Warner is a retired journalist and former Cranbrook City councillor.