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We need a sunshine ordinance

Tuesday's vote was a good first step, but not enough.


I'm on vacation next week, which means I'll be driving to Ontario and back, thinking about the election and beefing up the "Issues" part of our candidates and issues page from hotel rooms. I'd much appreciate readers' thoughts: what issues do you think should be put on the front burner for this election?

For me, a Sunshine Ordinance remains the highest priority, and I'll be banging that drum every chance I get.

Which brings us to Jackie Barkhouse's successful motion to ask the province to place the city on the list of agencies that are required to publicly report employee salaries over $100,000.

I don't think the measure goes far enough—I'd like to see the city simply mirror the province's public accounts system, where anyone who is paid more than $25,000 by the province, along with all companies being paid more than $5,000, is listed on a publicly available web site.

This is commonplace in the US. I started reporting pre-internet days, but a regular part of my reporting routine was once a month, usually the first couple of days of the month, I'd walk over to City Hall and ask for the ledger—essentially a cheque register, that also included charge card payments and electronic transfers—and I'd sit down for a few hours and review it. It listed everything: employee pay cheques, including pay remissions to the courts for garnished wages; payments to vendors, payments settling law suits for things like a passenger getting injured on a bus, or a city-owned tree dropping a limb on a car.

All of that information is secret in Halifax, and it annoys me. The United States has plenty of problems, but public access to government payments isn't one of them. And I really don't think there's an argument to be made that somehow US cities run less effectively than Canadian cities because a reporter can look at the chequebook. On the contrary, there's a level of oversight that is missing here. Think about it: if I could have viewed the cheque register at government agencies like the city and Trade Centre Limited, the concert scandal would've never happened.

There's a sort of maturity of public debate that can come from full public access. For example, I think public employees should be well-paid, and while excessive overtime payments might indicate a management problem, the employees making that overtime are rightly compensated. And I don't mind that compensation being a matter of public record. If the pay rates are reasonable, I'll defend them, openly, and let the facts be what they are. Making them secret is the antithesis of informed debate, and we all get a little stupider for it.

In any event, Barkhouse's motion was a good first step. I'll be asking all candidates to endorse the Sunshine Ordinance.

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