City councillor calls for open data policy

Push from inside, outside council for more transparency at city hall

What started as a status update on the Johnson Street Bridge replacement project spiraled into a debate about the public’s right to know.

Sparking the controversy in council chambers last week was the citizen advisory panel.

Tasked with giving advice to city staff on the evolving $77-million Johnson Street Bridge project, the seven-member panel meetings are not open to the public.

“If the members of the panel themselves are publicly known and the minutes are subsequently released, what would be lost by making those meetings public?” asked Coun. Philippe Lucas.

The incident is just the latest in a rash of recent calls for more transparency at City Hall.

Last week, a elector organization dubbed Open Victoria made similar demands. The group endorses candidates for the upcoming civic election, based on shared values, including “Opening up City Hall decision-making to greater scrutiny and public input, especially for finances and planning.”

The city’s handling of Crystal Pool provides a good example of what’s fueling the group’s criticism.

Open Victoria spokesperson, Derry McDonell has been trying to get his hands on an assessment report of the aging facility for months. The document is expected to reveal very costly repair or replacement options, estimated in 2009 at $58 million.

Despite being completed July 14, the report isn’t available for public consumption because it hasn’t been shared with city council. As per city policy, city staff must prepare its own report, then present the two documents to council together.

It’s the type of frustration that might be resolved by adopting an open data practice.

The idea behind open data is simple: if taxpayers paid for the data, then they should have access to it.

Coun. Marianne Alto put forward a motion to adopt an open-data policy last week.

People should be able to search for information generated by the city, find it easily and use it, explained Alto.

“As soon as you get an item, it is immediately released,” she said, qualifying data containing legal, privacy or personnel concerns be exempt.

She points to Vancouver as a model.

For instance, that city posts its business registry online, listing owner’s name, size and number of employees.Voting records for each councillor is another example of information not yet available in Victoria.

While Alto acknowledges posting so much information online takes staff time and money, there are also cost savings. Instead of calling staff to get basic information, people can find it for themselves.

Council unanimously passed the motion at the governance and priorities committee meeting last Thursday, and gave it final consideration at yesterday’s council meeting (after •••••••••News deadline).

While sharing data with the public found easy support on council, opening the bridge project’s citizen advisory panel proved more contentious.

“Our staff need the ability to go out and seek advice on their own,” said Mayor Dean Fortin. “Those are not open meetings.”

City manager Gail Stephens chairs the the panel meetings, which occur on an as-needed basis.

“The panel is just a management tool bringing advice to administration,” she said. “It would not be usual for a city manager to chair a public body.”

Lucas suggested directing more bridge-project discussions to the environment and infrastructure public advisory committee, whose meetings are open to the public.

Staff will examine the options and bring them back to council for discussion.