Transparency at City Hall?

So I was poking around on the City Council website (cause I am cool like that) and I was trying to find how Councillors had voted on a couple of issues. What I quickly found was that this was nearly impossible. There was no way to find out how a Councillor voted without having to dig through PDF minute files of the specific council meetings (more on this later). This got me thinking about how Windsor City Hall and Council seem to be out of touch with the 21st Century.

Fiscal Transparency 

This discussion was amplified by the  release of the Frontier Centre’s 8th Annual Municipal Transparency Index a couple of weeks ago. The Frontier Centre’s Index that ranked the City of Windsor as the 5th least transparent city in Canada but what does that mean?  The index is built from 10  categories of fiscal reporting for a total score of 33 points:

Timeliness of audit opinion /4

Receipt of accounting award /2

Additional Commentary and Statistics /8

Capital Assets Reported /8

Capital Assets Depreciated/Funded /4

Expenditures by Object Reported /1

Goods/Contracted Services Separate /1

Depreciation Recorded (Object) /1

Expenditure Line Items Defined /2

Historical Trend Statistics Given /2

Total /33

In the report they quantify how the reach the score and although you can probably quibble about some of the measures they use to justify reporting periods,

In case you are wondering, Windsor scored a 18/33 which is a pass, with full marks given for Capital Assets Reported, Capital Assets Depreciated/Funded, Expenditures by Object Reported and Depreciation Recorded (Object). Unfortunately the City only manages a handful of other points  across the remaining categories. I don’t take this to say that the City’s reporting system is hiding things but the fact that certain items and additional clarification could be added to our financial reports to provide context to Councillors and citizens wouldn’t be that bad of an idea.

Auditor General

This discussion of what the financial reporting actually means of course brings us to the discussion of the Auditor General. The arguments for (greater transparency, power to compel testimony) and against (redundant and costing approximately $200,000 a year) are relatively clear?

This Monday’s column by Ann Jarvis more or less summarized what my position would have been. An AG is not about catching fraud (although he/she would have probably had something to say about the events of former Councillor Maghnieh) rather it is more about finding nickel and dime efficiency that saves money over time. Despite the $200k cost per year, if he finds a portion of that savings each year, over time it will add up to many times the costs that we were pay.

A majority of Councillors ran on a platform of bringing back the Auditor General position but the exact list is hard to come by (Ann Jarvis did publish a list but I went to find original sources).  Although I will admit that I didn’t dig through internet archives and caches of pages, currently only 4 Councillors have active websites (not counting Councillor Sleiman who does have a PDF of a pamphlet from the 2014 campaign hosted online) where we can find out what they promised in the last election and their opinions on issues. I probably could have looked harder but if a constituent needs to go beyond page 2 of a Google Search to find a webpage it doesn’t set much of an example for transparency.

Councillor Elliot and Marra do have sites that are available but have not been updated since the last campaign giving us information but not following up on existing opinions. Councillor Gignac current website is available but is set up for her run as a Conservative candidate in Windsor-Tecumseh meaning information from her Council campaign has largely been scrubbed from the face of the interent. The gold standard goes to Councillor Kusmierczyk who not only has his platform listed but records and justifies his votes on his website.

Council Votes 

Unfortunately Councillor Kusmierczyk is the exception not the rule and currently the only way for find out how your Councillor votes is to attend council, watch it on Cogeco Cable or read Council Minutes. Unfortunately, there are a few flaws in this system: 1) I’m a big nerd but even I don’t want to go to Council that often; 2) I am one of those “cord cutting young people” who doesn’t pay for cable, therefore I don’t have access to Cogeco gripping coverage of Council; 3) There is no live stream on the internet anywhere.

This wouldn’t be so bad if there is a clear list or some sort of searchable directory that had Councillor votes recorded. Part of the problem is that the Clerk only records votes that are requested to be recorded votes. This means that the majority of votes are not officially recorded and although a lot of the communications and committee reports are unanimously accepted, those handful of dissenting voices should be known and heard. This is especially important when voters need to make informed decisions about their Councillors

Unfortunately the only way to see who voted on what issue is the dig through minutes of Council Meetings that are posted in PDF files that are not fully searchable (at least not in my PDF viewer) and even then they are hardly user friendly. Of course this spurred me to action of sorts as I have begun building a database to track Council voting records and if any Councillor wish to share their record with me I would happily record it. That being said this is going to be a longer term project and we will see where it goes…. At least next week’s Council meeting should be interesting.

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