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Transparency, accessibility inconsistent in Greater Victoria civic politics

In a changing world politicians struggle with communications
Pictured are Victoria, View Royal and Colwood’s municipal offices. (Black Press Media files)

Tim Collins


Transparency and accessibility have become a keywords in contemporary politics.

The actual meaning of the words, however, have been obscured to the point where some of the politicians that most cry for transparency may be the same ones who are criticized for behaving in a manner that is the polar opposite of transparent.

Some of the municipalities that make up Greater Victoria are not immune to that phenomenon.

Here is just a sampling of the sort of events that have fuelled concerns regarding civic government transparency and the accessibility of civic politicians.

Recently, members of Victoria council struggled with the issue of ‘closed meetings’ which bar members of the public and the media and for which no agenda or information is released.

On a separate topic, the same council struggled with and was split on the question of whether they should make information on a controversial project to transform Centennial Square to be more accessible to the public. In that case, three members of that council voted against the motion (which ultimately passed).

In 2023, the Chair of the Intermunicipal Advisory Committee on Disability Issues (IACDI) criticized West Shore municipalities for their transparency in implementing the province’s Accessible British Columbia Act and spoke about a “trust erosion” that had come as a result.

Last year, a member of North Saanich council resigned after first calling the mayor “Mr. Hitler” after Mayor Peter Jones shut down questions about the advisory committee on the district’s official community plan.

In 2021, a municipal watchdog group filed a complaint with the Office of the B.C. Ombudsperson against Langford for declining to make councillors’ financial disclosure documents available online. That long-standing council was virtually swept from office in the next election.

That change in Langford’s governance didn’t alleviate transparency concerns, however as, Mayor Scott Goodmanson recently faced criticism after implying that a member of the public may be barred from city hall meetings after he allegedly confronted a council member at the councillor’s home.

But perhaps one of the best indicators of transparency and accessibility of politicians can be found in whether a resident can actually contact their elected officials.

Again, there are some significant differences across the municipalities that make up Greater Victoria.

While all the 13 municipalities have websites with the names of the mayor and councillors listed, most of those listings only provide the phone number for the municipal offices where a message for a councillor may, or may not, elicit a response.

Similarly, all the web sites provide email addresses for the mayor and councillors, but again most of those contacts go to their municipal office work email, and not their personal accounts.

And while calling or writing to the municipal contact points will often result in a response from either the politicians themselves, or a staff person, they sometimes do not.

For example, a recent attempt to elicit information on an issue in the City of Langford, Black Press Media contacted councillors at their municipal email accounts but only one replied with an automated response that referred the inquiry to the communications staff. That person was unfortunately not in the office for several days and, when they returned (nine days later) their response was simply to say that the “City does not have a statement to provide (on the issue)”.

In other cases, some civic politicians take a different approach.

Cynthia Day has been a councillor in Colwood for 21 years and posts her personal phone number online.

“It’s a personal preference for me. The community knows me, and people are less likely to be negative when you’re open to hearing their ideas,” Day said. She went on to note that not all civic councillors list their personal numbers, and she respects their choice.

“I just feel that it’s overall beneficial,” she said.

View Royal councillor Ron Mattson agrees.

“Your role as a politician is to get input from residents. Otherwise, why are we here?” Mattson said.

“I know one councillor who won’t talk to anyone on the phone, and I think that’s doing a disservice to the residents,”

Victoria Coun. Chris Coleman is adamant that being available to the public is a critical part of the job. Not only is his personal phone number readily available, but he also goes so far as to go door-to-door two days a month to talk to residents.

“I want to know what we are doing well, what we are not doing well and what’s important (to the residents). It’s part of my job,” Coleman said.

“Communication can help to alleviate the anxiety that people have about what’s happening (in government). That can make a big difference as anxiety can easily become anger and then rage and that rage can result in protest. It’s really about the power of trust.”

Mayor Maya Tait of Sooke agrees that personal contact is critical to creating trust in city hall.

“I’ve had callers who were a bit negative and even frightening, but we’ll meet, and I let them see who I am and explain what we’re doing,” Tait said. “It’s important to engage and I meet people everywhere… the night market, in the grocery store … all over. Communication is important.”

In Langford, Mayor Scott Goodmanson seems to agree with the sentiment.

“We moved our meeting times back to 7 p.m. from 5:30 to make sure that people could get to the meetings. I campaigned on trying to get city hall more accessible. How do you know what people need if you don’t interact with them?” Goodmanson said.

Neither Goodmanson nor any of Langford’s councillors list their personal phone numbers or emails online, however, and instead rely on the 2.25 communication staff (one position has communications as a partial responsibility) to screen communications and refer some attempts at communication directly to staff.

Goodmanson said that he feels that having communication staff in place is beneficial, and, in its latest budget, Langford made provision to hire another communications staff person.

It’s an approach that rankles former mayor Stew Young. His criticism arises largely from two significant and consecutive tax increases for the municipality.

“They (mayor and council) are not approachable. They won’t let you talk at council meetings and if you say anything against them, they silence you,” said Young.

“There’s no conversation …no talking to anyone. They don’t talk to the electorate. The electorate has to talk to staff members.”

Goodmanson, however, said that improvements in providing information to the public through the posting of a series of planning documents online have, in fact, improved public access to information.

But it’s the observations of Coun. Gery Lemon of View Royal that may be most instructive on the issue.

She has been in the office since 2018 and was a communications professional when she came to the office.

“The world has changed and it’s not the kind and gentle world of 30 years ago. It’s actually a very challenging time and there’s more disenchantment in the world,” said Lemon. “Still, I’m an elected public official and it’s my responsibility to avail myself to residents and to the media. It’s really what the job is about.”

Lemon does list her personal phone number online and intends to keep doing so.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect where e-mails get sent to.