The open government report


Accountability reportOn Monday’s agenda, council received a 21-page report from the clerk on the nature and mechanics of open government in Collingwood. This comprehensive report, titled the “Accountability and Transparency Policy,” because it also introduced a revised, formal policy, listed all of the bylaws, policies and legislation by which council and staff operate.

This is such an important and useful report that I felt it worthwhile to extract it from the April 13 agenda and make it available separately here. If you have not read it, or have any questions about how a council works and the rules that guide us, it’s worth reading. It opens by defining two terms:

Accountability: The principle that the municipality is obligated to demonstrate and take responsibility for its actions, decisions and policies and that it is answerable to the public at large.
Transparency: The principle that the municipality will conduct its business in an accessible, clear and visible manner and that its activities are open to examination by its stakeholders.

The report than goes on to further define how the municipality achieves these goals and why they are important:

Accountability, transparency and openness are standards of good government that enhance public trust. They are achieved through the Town of Collingwood adopting measures ensuring, to the best of its ability, that all activities and services are undertaken utilizing a process that is open and accessible to its stakeholders. In addition, wherever possible, the Town of Collingwood will engage its stakeholders throughout its decision making process which will be open, visible and transparent to the public.

The report then provides a comprehensive list of how we currently comply with the requirements, as well as what we do to enhance and better them:

The Town of Collingwood currently complies with a host of legislation, policies and procedures that maintain an open and transparent decision-making process. For the purposes of the Policy, the Town’s various policies, procedures and practices have been divided into the following categories:
1. Legislated Requirements
2. Financial Accountability, Oversight and Reporting
3. Performance Measurement and Reporting
4. Open Government
5. Internal Accountability and Ethical Standards

I won’t repeat all of the material that follows, but will include the section about “open government” which is really about local governance and the policies and procedures we already have in place to achieve this openness:

Open Government
The following are policies, procedures and practices that ensure the Town is transparent  in its operations and that residents are not only aware of how decisions are made and carried out, but that they are able to participate as well:

  • Council Procedure By-law
  • Public Posting and Distribution of Council Agenda Meeting Documentation
  • Public Notice By-law
  • Procurement By-law
  • Land Sale/Disposal By-law
  • Closed Meeting Investigator Policy and Retainer
  • Facility Naming Policies
  • Committee/Board Recruitment Policies
  • Land Acquisition Guidelines
  • Accessible Barrier Complaint Policy
  • Records Retention By-law
  • Social Media Policy

This section ends with an important note:

The Town already has many best-practice open meeting procedures in place (such as advertising meetings, disclosing reasons for moving in camera, and provisions for public deputations).

This section of the report cconcludes:

The Town of Collingwood Code of Ethics currently functions in the same manner as a Code of Conduct, providing for the way in which members of council and its local boards are to carry out their duties in a fair, impartial, transparent and professional manner while in their role as an elected official.

The report then goes on to explain the various discretionary tools we have if we deem it necessary to add more layers of accountability (and, of course, at greater cost), including:

  • A strengthened Auditor General position
  • A Lobbyist Registry and Registrar
  • An Ombudsman
  • An Integrity Commissioner to implement/enforce the Code of Conduct

A future staff report will discuss opportunities to partner with either neighbouring municipalities or the county in engaging an integrity commissioner collectively. Small municipalities, such as ours (under 20,000 people), generally don’t engage such persons independently.

The included policy changes, approved by council, include a refined process for monitoring and handling complaints about compliance to the policy. That process starts with the clerk’s office:

Policy Monitoring/Complaints
To ensure the policy is being adhered to, Staff are recommending a method in which complaints and concerns may be filed if anyone feels Council or Staff are not being accountable and transparent for their actions in accordance to the policy. All complaints and concerns are to be received by the Clerk who will then notify:
a) In the case of staff, the Department Head responsible for the areas;
b) In the case of a closed meeting, the Closed Meeting Investigator; and
c) In the case of Council, the Head of Council.

Any member of the public can contact the clerk’s office with questions or concerns, including members of council (which, of course, we should always do first). The report recommends regular review of the policy (it has not been reviewed since 2009):

Staff are proposing the policy be reviewed within the year of a new Council term or at such other time as may be deemed appropriate to ensure its effectiveness.

Included with the report is the current Code of Ethics (now renamed to Code of Conduct). It states on its first pages that council members are obligated to read and understand the Municipal Act and Conflict of Interest Act:

b. That they learn and follow the Procedural By-law for Council and its Committees,
c. That they read, understand and follow the provisions of the Municipal Act and Municipal Conflict of Interest Act which apply directly and indirectly to the role of Member of Council…

Within that Code is the obligation for professional development:

Members of Council have an obligation to promote, support, pursue and partake in opportunities for professional development, including but not limited to;

  • FCM Conferences
  • AMO Conferences
  • Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing seminars
  • Provincial Professional Association Training Institutes (OGRA, AMCTO, PRO, etc.)
  • Provincial Municipal Council orientation sessions

Council Members are encouraged to stay updated on issues and trends so that they can be as efficient and effective as possible in the carriage of their duties and responsibilities.

Which is in part why we have a small expense account allocated to such pursuits.

The report ends with a five-page, comprehensive “Accountability and Transparency Reporting Matrix” that “contains current activities and practices that hold the Town of Collingwood accountable and transparent.” This shows both council and staff responsibilities and authority in these issues.