A tale of two mayors and why open government matters

For publication in The Kamloops Daily News, Saturday, Jan. 24, 2009

This is a new kind of mayor we have.

If Terry Lake was hip hop, Peter Milobar is elevator music. Lake, track shoes; Milobar, comfy slippers. Testosterone vs. Valium. 

Lake used to voice message his phone daily with who he was, where he was, why he couldn’t come to the phone at this particular moment, and a peppy assurance he’d get back to you ASAP. Milobar is a “Hullo, leave a message” kind of guy.

One style vs. the other is not right or wrong, good or bad, it just is. While Lake was complicated and edgy, Milobar is what you see is what you get. He is, in other words, calm, cool and collected, comfortable and reliable. 

Not quite unflappable, but darn close.

So when the new mayor accuses a newspaper editor of having a mental illness, specifically of being neurotic and of “having a conspiracy theory in your head all the time,” you know he’s feeling peevish about the line of questioning.

The subject was the closed-door two-day strategic planning session council held last weekend and the question was how the mayor could possibly justify planning the future of the city in secret. 

The mayor knew the call would be coming so he was ready for me, but at the end of the conversation we hadn’t convinced each other of anything.

“There was nothing earth-shattering,” he said, noting that council members feel more comfortable tossing around ideas — some of which might sound pretty dumb — without press and public there to hear them.

“I don’t see the harm in it,” he added. Besides which, all of the stuff will be discussed again at a public workshop, and, anyway, nobody should have been surprised because council voted unanimously to hold the session in camera.

That’s technically true but it’s interesting that a number of councillors had no idea that’s what they were doing.

“No, we didn’t vote on it,” one councillor told me. “It was a directive from the mayor.”

“We really didn’t have a vote as to whether it would be in camera or not,” another councillor told me.

But yes they did. It worked this way. Chief administrative officer Randy Diehl asked Milobar if he wanted the strategic planning exercise to be open, or closed. Milobar wanted it closed.

Well, you can’t hold a meeting of council in secret unless there are specific and approved reasons, and unless council votes in favour of doing so. 

So, at the regular meeting of Tuesday, Jan. 13, a resolution was put on the council agenda to authorize putting the meeting in camera. But get a load of the wording:

Recommendation to schedule an in-camera meeting “2009 January 16 and 17 under Section 90 (1)(l) (municipal objectives, measures and progress reports for the purposes of preparing an annual report).”

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t exactly say to me, “let’s hold a secret meeting to figure out what we’re going to do in this city for the next three years.”

A few years ago, the provincial government made amendments to the Local Government Act/Community Charter to put a lid on a growing tendency of City councils to hold closed meetings on everything under the sun.

Under the new rule, any in-camera meeting had to be approved by council and it had to be about confidential land, labour or legal matters.

A couple of years later, the geniuses in Victoria decided strategic planning meetings should be added to the exemptions (that’s where section 90-1l comes in).

Anyway, on Jan. 13, council obediently raised their hands to approve the motion. Those who had no idea what it really meant didn’t ask, and nobody told them.

“I just don’t think anyone picked up on that,” one veteran councillor explained.

When I pointed this out to Milobar, his answer basically was that he couldn’t help that and “we weren’t hiding it.”

A neurotic conspiracy theorist might think the whole thing was an intentional gambit to keep council in the dark and slide it through, but not me. It was, in all likelihood, a case of the mayor either thinking it not important or simply assuming everybody should know what was going on. 

So, they all hived off to TRU for a couple of days with a facilitator brought in from Vancouver, flip charts, muffins and coloured markers, and a dinner of vegetarian lasagna, roast beef and custard dessert (the latter described by one participant as “awful”).

Attitudes toward the secrecy issue vary from one councillor to another.

“I had a concern,” said Denis Walsh, but added he was assured it was all a good idea. He’d like to see a process in which the public can have input before the council ever sits down to do its strategic plan.

“I felt awkward about it,” admitted Pat Wallace, but said Milobar thought it was necessary.

“That’s a good question,” responded Marg Spina when asked about the necessity for closing the meeting. “My preference is for as open a forum as possible.”

Nancy Bepple, though, was fine with it, though she pointed out, “I’m so new on council.”

And John O’Fee, who has been to more strategic planning sessions than he likely wishes to count: “I think the first one, with a new council, benefits from being held outside of the all-seeing media eye.”

The rationale for excluding the public seems to come down to a few basics: we didn’t want to look stupid, nothing earth shattering was discussed, we wanted to build a team, we didn’t want any misunderstanding about what our intentions are.

To which I say, if you don’t want to look stupid, don’t go into politics. If nothing earth-shattering was discussed, there was clearly no reason not to open the meeting. If you want to build a team, there are much better ways of doing it. If you don’t want to be misunderstood, the more transparent you are the better.

Back to the Lake-Milobar comparison, they do have something in common. 

“I’m comfortable with the business we do in-camera,” Lake once said in response to questions about why something as basic as paying the legal costs of a member of council wasn’t done in open meeting. (He also preferred having budget meetings in camera.)

I once described Milobar as a young Cliff Branchflower. It was a compliment, but as it happens Branchflower presided over one of the most secretive councils in the city’s history.

It’s not even the end of January and Milobar has now held two important strategy sessions behind closed doors, the other one being with businesses on the issue of the local economy.

In my declining years, I suppose, I will become one of those cranky old farts who writes endless letters to the editor and stands up at public meetings and harangues City council about everything it’s doing wrong.

“Don’t worry about him,” the council veterans will reassure the rookies. “He’s just a neurotic old conspiracy theorist. We’re waiting for him to die.”

I will always believe, though, that accountability and transparency in government not only must be real, but must be seen to be real.

Closed government is easy; open government is difficult. I’ll never stop hoping politicians will take the less easy road.

About Mel Rothenburger (7707 Articles) is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

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