Richmond council wrong body to proclaim ‘Right to Know Week’

I very seldom write opinion letters of this nature but I feel I have been compelled and driven to do so, given the proclamation just adopted by Richmond Municipal Council during its less than 30 minute regular council meeting of September 28.

I completely believe in the principle of the “right to know.” What I have an issue with is making it a generic proclamation and giving it a life span of one week. For Richmond Council, I would suggest that it should have been established at the beginning of its present mandate.

It had been said that we would get, with this group of five councillors, open, honest and transparent government. But maybe it was because it was not proclaimed at the time, that we ended up with a much different outcome, a more secretive, closed and opaque governance model.

Let me note some blatant examples that the “right to know” was not front and centre with our group of five. It is a good time to do this as we are hearing, yet again, four years down the road, the theme and refrain of the importance of openness, accountability and transparency in government.

I have been attempting, for the past three months, to have published the list of grants issued, to various organizations during the last fiscal year (April 2019- March 2020). This was a practice followed, in the past, and this list was published in this newspaper, The Reporter, on what I believe was a yearly basis. What would be so difficult with that? I saw that as a good thing and also a requirement of the Municipal Government Act. Who would object to publishing that money was given out to the Strait Richmond Hospital, St. Anne Care Centre, the Kingston Centre or such other good causes?

My interest was that the Municipal Government Act (MGA) was followed and that people had the “right to know” where the money was being spent. We had been promised open and transparent government. Why would I not expect it? Why should you not expect that kind of governance?

Here is what is clear and stated in the MGA act under section 65C (1) Grant disclosure policies:

“The council shall adopt a policy that requires the municipality to disclose to the public a list of recipients of grants made by the municipality and the amounts of those grants.”

The initial response to my request was that we were no longer required to meet that standard of publishing the information. The MGA no longer required that. It was still written in the act so I persisted, and yes, it is still a requirement. The next answer was that we no longer give grants. Again I knew this to be happening, as I have been a regular attendee at council meetings for more than 10-12 years. Then I was told that we were giving money out but it was not called grants. It was called something else.

Having discussed this with officials at Municipal Affairs, we concluded that indeed Richmond council had given out grants during the last fiscal year. And the Richmond County grant policy is quite clear. There are four categories of grants listed. I then wrote a letter requesting the matter be presented and voted upon at Richmond council, on September 28. It did not become part of the regular agenda and was not put forth as an item added either. In my opinion there was ample room to add the item, as the letter was submitted on September 16 and the agenda was on the light side.

The remedy provided – after three months of prodding, asking and insisting – was to have the list placed on the municipal Web site and that met the requirement of municipal affairs. Do you know how to access that information on the Web site? Was that information put out so that you would know that it was placed there? Were you given the route to take to get to that document? Had my letter been discussed on September 28, just maybe the information and means of obtaining it could have been outlined for listeners and the public. So, did Richmond Council display openness and transparency? I say they did not meet the expectation and the requirement of the MGA and did not live up to the slogan, “right to know.” But then again that seems to be for one week of the year.

The above was but one example of having to jump through hoops to get information that should be readily available and provided in an age-friendly manner. Buried in other documents and files, on a Web site, with no directions to follow is much less than age-friendly. It is stifling the “right to know,” again in my opinion.

And then there were numerous other examples of the ‘right to know” being thwarted or not respected. Much more space would be taken up and needed if details were presented or shared about: the open question period, afforded for years to ratepayers, but terminated with little or no discussion by the group of five; the quick demise, and dismantling, of the policy committee initiated early in the mandate and having members at large present, when it was discovered that the public might know too much of the contents of policies and the perks held within them; the amendments to councillor stipends and the process to arrive at them; the quiet dismissal of the mayor versus warden issue that had been a topic of interest to ratepayers and favoured by a high percentage of people participating in the development of the most recent strategic plan; the issue of legal fees that is better swept under the rug or covered by having them appear only in the cheques issued section of the Richmond County (not so very age-friendly) Web site.

The “Right to Know” initiative or proclamation should not be a one week thing. Given that we are in the midst of an election and that words like openness, honesty, accountability are again used often, let us vow to go beyond the use of words and have them, the words, replaced by meaningful actions.

Let’s put aside generic statements and discuss what it means to be open, transparent, and accountable. Let’s put an end to hidden agendas and backroom deals!

Robbie Fougère

Petit de Grat