Living in a ‘bare minimum’ democracy

Queens County’s “summer ambassador” is back once again, flooding our Facebook feeds with joyous, stream-of-consciousness accounts of routine local events and activities.

But these social media posts are just the prelude to the main event, that magical moment when our summer fun guide hands out free — that’s right, FREE! — hot dogs.

Queens could probably do without a paid summer ambassador. But it could really, really use a democracy ambassador.

That’s because right now, we’re living in what I would describe as a “bare minimum” democracy. Council does just enough to meet the letter of the Municipal Government Act, but not a stitch more to inform residents or promote citizen engagement.

Region of Queens Municipality does not publish attendance records for council members on its website. So I decided to submit a freedom of information request for attendance records at all regular and special council meetings since the 2016 election.

Much to my surprise, the CAO responded by saying such records “are already in the public domain on our website.” That’s right, this “public domain” information can be easily and swiftly found … by reviewing the separately published minutes of all council meetings held over the past 21 months and then tabulating the individual attendance records for said meetings.

(On the plus side, I did get my $5 freedom of information application fee returned to me. And it was nice to see we have a locked-down, double-barreled accounting system that requires both the mayor and finance director to sign a $5 cheque.)

It’s not just council attendance records that require Herculean effort to unearth. Voting records are even harder to determine. In fact, only those who attend each and every council meeting in person could ever figure out which council member voted which way on a particular motion.

That’s because in our bare minimum democracy, council minutes record only who proposes and seconds a motion, along with the final vote tally. There is no written record of individual votes, at least none that appear to be publicly available. In the case of split votes, the minutes simply indicate how many were in favour of a motion and how many were opposed.

So, unless you’re there to see hands go up in the air, you’d never know who leaned in what direction. The audio recordings provided by Region of Queens are of no use in this regard.

Video recordings — which are published in many municipalities, including smaller ones such as the Town of Shelburne — would provide a window to council votes. But I guess video, like the Trestle Trail, is a bridge too far for Region of Queens. (If only they could farm council proceedings out to Rails to Trails or some other self-motivated community group.)

Is our local government adhering to provincial guidelines for municipalities? Yes, it appears so. But is it making any extra effort — beyond experimenting with the occasional evening meeting of council — to improve democratic engagement? Absolutely not.

So, enjoy those free hot dogs and have a great worry-free summer, everybody. That is, after all, what they’re counting on.

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One comment

  1. Well I feel sure you Sir: are considered to be a thorn in the side of the Region of Queen’s, by the Region of Queens. Our System is based on openness and transparency, as it should be, as it has to be. Your post brings to mind a telephone conversation I had some time ago with my councillor, one I will never forget when she said ” we don’t go public around here”, well if their ever was a truer statement voiced by a councillor in the Region of Queens Municipality, I have yet to hear it. It is not asking much to be informed of council business, and having open regular council meetings at 9 A.M. that’s what I typed, 9 A.M. that is not a misprint. Having streamed live council meeting, (and having them dated so interested residents can view them at their leisure) is something I have, and will continue to strive for, this is simply basic common sense, and why, expense is not the issue, but telephone calls just might be. (sorry about one long running paragraph , nothing I can do about it.) Another municipal unit with a population that compares with Queens, streamed their public council meeting because of the fear that some residents may not subscribe to Eastlink, which aired the meeting, talk about being responsible to their constituents. For those of you that have not been in council chambers, dynamic microphones are suspended from the ceiling, all are always on, I could be wrong but I do not recall seeing a microphone for public speakers. The sound quality is poor, if a councillor mayor, or C.A.O shuffle some paper, you lose some of the conversation, coughs, and burps has the same effect, a poor, poor set up to say the least. {I must end, I’m getting a little hot under the collar….) . There is little doubt that some of the things I would like to see changed (Streaming of meetings), would be a simple fix, and a progressive measure, but this is by design, and works very well for the mayor, council, and the staffers, not so well I’m afraid for the ones that truly matter, the residents and tax payers. Thanks

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