Council shows sign of actually understanding what transparency means. Taylor shows how it’s done.

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON  December 13, 2011  – They are learning.  Slowly; but it is clear they are trainable.  Your city council wanted to slip into a closed session to discuss levels or merit pay, but John Taylor, Councillor for Ward 3, said he didn’t want to go and he managed to convince the rest of council not to go into closed session.  So they didn’t go into a closed session – but they didn’t talk about the issue of merit pay either.

Kim Phillips, the acting City Manager, explained that the report they had prepared was done with the understanding that it was to be heard in a closed session.  If it was going to be an open session – then staff wanted to pull the report.  The tail is clearly still wagging the dog.

Councillor Taylor argued that much of what was to be discussed had been discussed in public, open session, at the Regional level and he believed Burlington should discuss the issue in public as well.

Acting City Manager Kim Phillips took the position that if everyone was going to hear what was being said - she wasn't going to talk. Council then set the matter of merit pay matters aside

The Acting City Manager dove into the procedural by-law looking for answers – the answer they found there was a little murky – but the decision was made to be open.  And THAT is new for this crowd.  But they are getting there – so pray for them.

Having decided to not go into Closed Session the Committee then ignored the issue; they received and filed it.

Earlier in the week Council, at a Committee of the Whole, heard two reports – in a closed session, related to legal fees, particularly on what has been spent on The Pier.  Councillor Meed Ward has for some time wanted to know just how much has been spent on legal fees as the city sued the various companies involved in the failed phase one part of getting the Pier built.

Councillor Taylor is almost the last council member one would expect to argue about going into closed session - but he did. First time this Council has chosen NOT to go into closed session when that was clearly the wish of senior staff.

One report had to do with a “legal department report regarding disclosure of legal fees” and the second, the legal department’s position on providing quarterly litigation updates.  Both were heard in a closed session by just Council and senior staff.

In her widely distributed Newsletter Councillor Meed Ward said: “I have long advocated that in the interest of accountability and transparency, we should be disclosing to taxpayers legal fees spent on items of public interest, such as the pier litigation. It’s been a matter of public debate whether disclosing current legal fees or future legal budgets reveal a legal strategy and prejudice a municipality’s case. However, as a first step I’m interested in exploring incremental release of previous legal fees, for example fees from, say, two years ago. This could allow reasonable, annual disclosure of fees during lengthy legal proceedings without suggesting future legal strategy.”

What Meed Ward hasn’t done however is mount a spirited drive to get those numbers out into the hands of the public and to – let us say – issue a Staff  Direction requiring the city solicitor to at least explain, publicly, why talking about legal fee specifics can damage a legal case.

The legal department has argued that to report how much has been spent would give away the city’s legal strategy – which looks to me like a lot of poor grade baloney.  To say that the city has paid Weir & Foulds, a prominent Toronto law firm, $296,719,85 (I made up that number but it is no doubt lower than what the city has actually paid the law firm) would in no way reveal any strategy.

The legal department is hiding behind a skirt and not wanting to be open about how much they have spent for fear that the public will really holler when they learn how much has been spent and they don’t want to deal with that plebeian political stuff.   Add to that a level of arrogance that exists within the legal community – and that gets us to where we are.

Your Council is at some point going to have to summon up the courage to create a policy and then stand behind that policy and require all departments to report on what they spend.

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