Open government gets tested

Victoria city council meeting sets priorities for new term

As the new Victoria city council gets down to the business of running a city, their stance on open government will be put to the test.

Shortly before the inaugural meeting last week, Mayor Dean Fortin sent out a question to his new councillors: should strategic-priorities meetings be open to the public, or kept in camera as they have been in the past?

It’s a big question with no easy answer.

Strategic-priorities meetings span several days in early January. It’s where the city’s new council essentially write their to-do lists for the next three years, determining which issues will receive the limited resources of staff time, and which issues won’t.

They are among the most important decisions council will make, which lends a strong case for public scrutiny. At the same time, fear of a sensational media headline could curtail open discussion during this brainstorming session.

It’s a quandary leaving some on

council with more questions than answers.

Council newcomer Shellie Gudgeon heard the call for more transparency at City Hall over and over at the doorstep while campaigning.

“We heard from everyone how disturbed they are by what takes place behind closed doors,” she said. She heard it again at the first of what she hopes to be a series of open-door meetings. More than 100 people showed up to discuss their desires and concerns.

“I don’t have a yes or no,” Gudgeon said, regarding how she feels about opening strategic-priorities meetings.

“It needs to be what the public wants,” she said. “On the flip side, there is a need for discussion that doesn’t become too political.

“For me, coming from a business perspective, there’s never a black and white answer,” she said. “I involve our customers, I engage our customers for decisions surrounding our restaurants, but I don’t invite them into my managers’ meeting.”

Fortin said council will hold a vote to decide whether to keep the meetings in camera.