Town Hall transparency – good news and bad news

For anyone who had given up trying to find QB Town Council’s discussion on a specific agenda topic on one of their YouTube meeting recordings, we are pleased to report a huge improvement!

Starting with the June 29, 2022 Council meeting, viewers can not only watch the segment currently being played, but also easily spot where the next segments start, along with a short title of each.

In this screenshot example, the topic being discussed is a Zoning Amendment application on First Avenue, but viewers can also look ahead and can see exactly where the discussion on the proposed new Council Correspondence Process begins.

This is a marked improvement in accessibility and ease of use of QB Town Council meeting recordings.

Town Hall transparency goes up; viewer irritation goes way down. No longer will we at Second Opinion QB need to provide our readers with the time stamp marker for Council discussions we refer you to in our reporting.

We would like to commend the Town’s Information Technology team members by name, but — speaking of transparency — we have no idea who you are. Information Technology isn’t even included in the list of Departments on the Town’s website. We can’t even tell which of the listed Departments these employees report to, and we know they exist. Job postings for two new IT positions were added by the Town last year. So, through the Town’s CAO Lou Varela, we extend kudos to the Town’s IT team for this technology / service improvement.

In the past two years Second Opinion QB frequently heard from readers and commented on the Town’s annoying Council meeting video accessibility, compared to other municipalities.

The Town’s previous CAO Sailland and acting CAO Svensen did not acknowledge or apologize, nor fix the obvious deficiency. Less than two months on the job, CAO Varela promptly addresses the problem.

We are hoping that Ms. Varela might also be able to quickly adopt the even better meeting video tools used by her previous employer, the District of Oak Bay.

Oak Bay uses a technology that is quite similar to the meeting video accessibility provided by other municipal governments, including the Regional District of Nanaimo (RDN) and the City of Parksville. One click on an agenda item takes the viewer to the associated reports, and one click takes the viewer to the related video segment. All three (agenda, report, video) are accessible together, which would provide the public with improved access to Town of Qualicum Beach information.

You gain some, you lose some – Letters to the Town go into hiding

The Town’s new Council Correspondence Process, introduced by CAO Varela at the same June 29, 2022 QB Council meeting, is decidedly less impressive.

Historically, the Town has maintained a 3-ring binder of copies of correspondence received by Mayor and Council, sometimes including the Town’s response.

To view Correspondence sent to the Town, a member of the public or media simply had to go to the front counter at Town Hall, ask for the Correspondence Binder, then sit down at the side counter, or in a nearby meeting room if unoccupied, and browse the contents.

Given that a person who wishes to speak at a Public Hearing has to first publicly state their full name and address, this removal of correspondents’ names and addresses in the Correspondence binder was both baffling and absurd.

The Binder included a Correspondence Log listing the name, date and subject of each letter or email received, along with copies of each piece of correspondence. A copy of the Correspondence Log was included with the agenda of each regular Council meeting, as a handy reference for Council, staff and the public.

Generally, the staff were careful to blank out the sender’s personal contact information such as email address and telephone number.

Back in February 2021, Corporate Administrator Heather Svensen inappropriately broadcasted our Editor’s personal email address without permission, for which she was reprimanded, as we reported in September 2021, Deputy CAO Svensen disclosed personal information – BC Privacy Commissioner. Second Opinion QB also reported staff were occasionally not redacting the email address of senders whose emails were filed in the Correspondence Binder including, on one occasion, the email address of a minor.

Then the Town’s Correspondence process got silly. Shortly after CAO Sailland’s departure in the fall of 2021, then-acting CAO Svensen began tinkering with the Correspondence Log.

First, the sender’s recorded name went from, for example, ‘M Smote,’ to just ‘Mary.’ Later, the sender’s identity was removed entirely from both the Correspondence Log AND from their letter / email filed in the Correspondence Binder.

Now, no one can confirm who has written a letter / email or determine whether the letter is real or fake correspondence. Nor can members of the public confirm from the Correspondence Log whether their own correspondence has been received by the Town.

Given that a person who wishes to speak at a Public Hearing has to first publicly state their full name and address, this removal of correspondents’ names and addresses in the Correspondence binder was both baffling and absurd.

Previously, Second Opinion QB routinely spotted items of public interest in the Correspondence Log and Binder that warranted follow-up with Town residents who had taken the time to correspond to Mayor and Council in writing. There was no point in reviewing the Correspondence Binder once it contained anonymous correspondence that could have been written by anyone, or no one.

Fortunately, we are routinely cc’d or bcc’d on Town correspondence by email / letter writers. This helps us keep our readers aware of emerging issues, but an important vehicle for encouraging public participation and interaction is being cut off, without explanation.

Goodbye Correspondence Binder – you will be missed

At the June 29, 2022 QB Town Council meeting, CAO Varela presented the attached report and “Correspondence Log Protocol.” It was unanimously adopted by Council to become official Town Policy No. 3000-20.

Going forward (or backward depending on your perspective), a Correspondence Binder will still be maintained by Town staff. But the public will no longer be able to get their hands on the Binder.

First, you will have to select the single item that you are interested in, based solely on its three or four word “Topic” listed on the Council Correspondence Log. That topic may or may not adequately describe the contents.

Second, you will have to submit an FOI request for the item. Yes, you read that right, a formal FOI request. And, presumably, you will pay to see the correspondence written to your Town and Council. Can pay-per-view Council meetings be far behind?

Third, you will have to wait for staff to redact the correspondence. Don’t expect this to happen on-demand.

CAO Lou Varela did not tell Council (or the public) how long this “processing” might take, and no one on Council bothered to ask. So, expect to wait for up to 30 days (statutory response requirement for FOI requests) to get your chance to read the correspondence item that was of interest to you a month ago – after you have paid any FOI fee the Town might choose to levy for the privilege.

CAO Varela has completely eliminated any practical public use of the Correspondence Log and Binder. Utility has become futility.

Not one Council member corrected Mayor Wiese’s preposterous closing statement: “I don’t see more FOIs. They can still get the information. It’s just getting it different.”

CAO Varela called this a “relatively minor change to the current Council correspondence process.” As they say, that assessment is not hers to make, as it is not she who is affected by this change.

In reality, CAO Varela has completely eliminated any practical public use of the Correspondence Log and Binder. Utility has become futility.

We cannot fathom why she would put us through this charade. Why maintain the pretense of some special service for the public? Just be honest and tell Council and the public that, for all practical purposes, you are arbitrarily withdrawing public access to correspondence received by Mayor and Council. That leaves the public to draw their own conclusions.

CAO Varela expressed an objective of modernizing administration, freeing up staff time to attend to more valuable work. We would deem the effort expended to contrive this unnecessary bureaucratic Qualicum Beach Policy 3000-20 as a zero-value time and money waster.

Transparency does exist – in other municipalities

There is no specific statutory requirement that decrees that a municipality must maintain a special Log of correspondence received by Mayor and Council. We checked with other communities on the Island. While none of them reported any public access to a Mayor & Council Correspondence binder, many clearly strive to, and achieve, a good balance of public transparency coupled with requisite protection of personal information and confidential business. Here are a couple of examples we reviewed.

District of Tofino

In their Correspondence Policy, Tofino’s Manager of Corporate Services and CAO decide whether an item of correspondence gets added to the agenda for an upcoming public meeting of Council. The Policy directive does not specify criteria for inclusion / exclusion from the Council’s agenda. However, elsewhere on their website they acknowledge that “specific requests of Council are prioritized” while “correspondence for Council’s information” is unlikely to be included on a public agenda.

Using Tofino’s March 22, 2022 Council meeting as an example, there are three letters on the agenda (section 9 – Correspondence). Each of them asks Mayor and Council to resolve a particular timely issue. BTW, notice yet another example of the convenient meeting video access technology: https://tofino.ca/your-government/council/council-meetings/ 

Note that Tofino staff have redacted only the sender’s email address and phone number – but not their full name and address. That appears to be the norm for most municipalities – Qualicum Beach being the exception, again.

Town of Comox

The Council Correspondence Policy for the Town of Comox directs that “Council Correspondence shall be placed on a Meeting agenda for information and / or consideration.” While “Council Correspondence requesting a decision of Council shall be placed on the next available Meeting agenda,” for-information-only correspondence is included with a Council agenda “at the discretion of the CAO or Corporate Officer” who also are required to screen out any correspondence containing “any defamatory statements, allegations, inferences, impertinent, disrespectful or improper matter.”

As is the recognized norm, phone numbers and email addresses are to be redacted when including the correspondence for public viewing — but the Comox policy specifically requires that the correspondent’s name and street address NOT be redacted.

It does appear that Town of Comox staff strive to include ALL correspondence sent to their Mayor and Council on a public meeting agenda. For example, at https://www.comox.ca/councilmeetings check their May 18, 2022 regular Council Meeting agenda for a broad mix of public requests, petitions and commentary.

Regrettably, QB Town Council just moved further in the opposite direction.

Council’s meek and unquestioning adoption of CAO Varela’s Correspondence policy impedes, one could argue effectively blocks, the public’s access to correspondence directed to our elected Mayor and Council about issues of interest and importance to all residents of Qualicum Beach.