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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Accountability and transparency on boards and commissions

On Monday, Susan Eagle and I brought forward a motion to give the public greater access to information about the decisions made by various groups in the city that impact the lives of Londoners. Our motion read as follows:

That, in the interest of accountability and transparency, local Agencies, Boards and Commissions which include City Council representation BE URGED to make available to the public notices of meetings, agendas, and minutes of proceedings of their governing bodies, wherever appropriate.

The reason for bringing forward such a motion was a letter that I had received some time ago. It was from a member of the community, a person with a disability. Her complaint was that the Western Fair Board had decided to discontinue its long-standing practice of waiving admission charges for the severely disabled and their caregivers. From now on, they would be charged $5.00 each, an approach that would be at direct odds with provincial legislation covering caregivers.

When asked about this change in direction, the Western Fair Board indicated that this decision by the board  was a financial one, necessitated by the impact of the HST.

In the course of media investigations it was soon revealed that, despite the financial crunch, members of the Western Fair Board continue to receive free admission for themselves and members of their family. Media efforts to obtain further information about how persons with disabilities became identified as appropriate targets for cost savings measures and how the various members of the board voted on the issue were unfruitful. The CEO was adamant that minutes of the meeting would not be made available.

City council appoints three members to the Western Fair each term. When I was first elected, I was quite amazed to see how much competition there was for a seat on this particular board. Rumour had it that there were "perks" in the way of free tickets and free entertainment passes for directors and their families.

However, none of our members on the board seemed to have any minutes of the meeting at which this issue was decided. And the board refused to provide them.

This seemed rather strange to me. Although I recognize that the Western Fair, classified as an agricultural society under provincial statute, is not under the direction of council, it does receive taxpayers money in the form of being exempted from municipal taxes (by provincial legislation) and by a rental agreement with the city that allows it to pay below market rents until 2019. And especially when we send elected officials to sit on the board.

Most other boards and commissions provide significant information to the city and the public. The London Public Library Board on which I serve has meetings open to the public, notices of meetings and their locations are posted on the Internet, public delegations are welcomed, and the agenda and minutes of meetings are provided there as well. Only matters involving negotiations, purchase of property and personnel matters are in camera.

We can't force the Western Fair Board to become similarly transparent, but we can urge them to do so. And it would certainly be in its best interests to do so. Had they notified the public of their intentions to charge those with disabilities and their caregivers, the public would have had an opportunity to inform their directors that perhaps this would not be a good idea and a lot of bad publicity could have been avoided.

Thank you to the constituents who asked me to address this issue. The motion was supported by everyone except Controller Hume and Councillor Orser.

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