How to keep the public out of the public's business, example #1,428

City staff is dicking us around

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As usual, the city clerk's office posted the agenda for Tuesday's council meeting at 4pm on Friday. But of course Monday is a holiday, so we get this notice:
Due to the Civic Holiday on Monday September 7th, reports for the September 8th Regional Council meeting will be available the morning of Tuesday September 8th.
So we know in a general way what's going to be discussed, but can't get any of the particulars. This matters a whole lot, because we-- and I mean both we in the press and the public generally-- might want to prepare for some of these issues if they're big deals, or we might pass on them, depending.

For example, does "Case 01287 - Burnside Expansion" involve tripling the size of the place and assuming a billion dollars in additional debt, or are they simply moving a fence a few feet? A business owner in Burnside might feel one way about the former, another entirely about the latter. Should he be making frantic phone calls over the holiday weekend to try to find out what's what, or should he take the day off work Tuesday and hang out at City Hall all day, just in case?

And since we don't have the supporting documents for the agenda, we don't know which staff members to contact to direct our questions to, or which property owners are affected, which policies, exactly, are being discussed, etc.

Like the above-mentioned business owner, I could simply find out Tuesday what's happening. OK, so when do I go to City Hall?

September 8, 2009
Immediately following In Camera
Reconvene 6:00 p.m.
Council Chamber
In Camera Session
10:30 a.m., Reconvene 1:30 p.m.
In other words, if you really want to know what's going to happen, you can wait for the agenda items to be posted Monday morning at around 10 o'clock, or you could go and hang out at City Hall all day-- maybe the in camera session will be over at 10:45, maybe at 2 o'clock, maybe at 4:20, dude. It's anybody's guess.

Which is why four or five reporters, including myself, will be cluttering up the hallways at City Hall all day Tuesday, doing nothing at all besides waiting for council to come out of its secret meeting and into a public one.

I think the kids call this "dicking us around."

But again, this is not just an issue for reporters--- it affects the entire public. There is simply no way for the public to be fully informed and follow council's proceedings, when the agenda aren't posted with sufficient time to study them.

And make no mistake: that's precisely the point. This is city staff managing the flow of information so that they can manage the council, manage the press coverage, and keep the public out of the loop.

There's no excuse for it. For the most part, staff has known what was going on this agenda for weeks. Some of the supporting documents were likely written months ago. As I've noted before, I've worked in places where it was flat-out illegal to hold a council meeting unless the agenda and supporting documents were made available a full week before the meeting.

That standard should apply in Halifax.

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