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Steps forward, but still stumbles in transparency

Posted on February 6, 2019 by Taber Times

Sometimes, Taber town council does not know how to get out of its own way when it comes to optics for good governance.

Just as council made two very strong steps forward in advocating for transparency in municipal matters by live streaming its meetings and offering up a fruitful initiative like Coffee With Council with public feedback, the irony of an issue that came up at its very first live streamed meeting is front and centre, where council has now taken one step back.

Re-examining the federal government’s elimination of a one-third tax exemption for elected officials and its subsequent salary implications, a later live-streamed meeting has shown how now that issue will be discussed behind closed doors at council’s Feb. 11 meeting according to a motion passed by council.

Federal legislation (Bill C-44) passed in 2017 eliminates the tax exemption effective Jan. 1, 2019, and has resulted in “substantive changes to after tax compensation” for elected officials. The decision has been left up to each individual municipality if or how they might act to counteract the effects of the change.

The same topic was discussed in Municipal District of Taber council chambers back in December, with no need to talk about the rationale one way or another in camera. The same for Horizon School Division where the board of trustees did not need to go behind closed doors before rendering their final decision. Canvass several municipalities and school boards across southern Alberta, and you will find the same thing.

M.D. council voted by a slim 4-3 vote to keep things the same and not compensate for the tax changes with a pay bump for its councillors, while Horizon School Division did the opposite for its trustees. Either decision has its pros and cons in its logic, but whatever direction town council decides to go in at its Feb. 11 meeting when it emerges from in-camera discussion, its rationale/explanation should be known by the public in full view. This is public money we are talking about and the public deserves the right as much as possible to be informed of why and how it is being spent. With other councils and boards throughout southern Alberta choosing not to go in-camera as precedence, it highlights Taber council’s perhaps quite liberal use of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

Speaking of FOIP, although the motion from Jan. 14’s meeting had to be brought back for further clarification at its Jan. 28 meeting, The Times inquired what section was being used as rationale to go in camera to discuss re-examining the federal government’s elimination of a one-third tax exemption for elected officials and its subsequent salary implications. None could be produced at the time during the media inquiry portion at town council’s Jan. 14 meeting, implying council was making motions to go in camera without even knowing if it is justified.

Who knows, council could very well be very divided by this issue with councillor Joe Strojwas voting against the motion and councillors Carly Firth and Mark Garner being absent from the meeting to allow in-camera discussion about compensation for elected officials from the federal tax implications at a future meeting.

Nevertheless, town council as a whole voted in favour and once again has stirred up the hornet’s nest of transparency where it is the latest example going against the spirit of the FOIP Act and guidelines laid down by Alberta Municipal Affairs, which plainly states ‘as an elected body, municipal councils should avoid conducting business in camera, including discussion of difficult topics such as budget deliberations, capital expenditures, tax recoveries, SALARY RANGES or hiring of additional municipal staff, bylaw amendments, subdivision proposals, and any contentious issues such as sensitive local issues.’

Council should be applauded for its recent decisions for its Coffee With Council initiative and live-streaming its meetings to increase relations with the voting public.

But, the Ghosts of Lack of Transparency Past have once again been re-visited with bad optics, where live-streamed meetings mean little if council continues to walk a path where they are constantly discussing issues behind closed doors that clearly should not be.

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