In Camera Reflections: Pondering Council’s Predilection for Closed Session Discussion

On Saturday the 18th of January a group of concerned citizens roused themselves on the North Van waterfront, to rally in support of the stern of the Flamborough Head – the last of the Victory ships, and visible reminder of North Vancouver’s proud ship building heritage.

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The Flamborough Head has had a complicated history in this city – salvaged by a previous council and erected to be a monument to the rich history of the area, and intended to serve as a centrepiece of industrial art in a re-purposed waterfront district. It was erected with much fanfare and back pounding, and its existence was once celebrated as one of the few certainties in the redevelopment of the waterfront, and the much balleyhooed Lot 5 (the empty lot surrounded by chain link fence [empty except some temporary beach volleyball courts, of course] adjacent to the ship’s stern in question).IMG_0289

Indeed, in late 2012 the North Van Urban Forum held a community design competition for the development of Lot 5, and in our discussions with City staff (attempting to keep our competition as closely aligned as possible to the pre-determined vision of the City) were told that accommodating the Flamborough Head should be included as one of the design criteria. This, we were told, was one of the few things we could count on, and for us represented an exciting design challenge to our competition participants.

The current council, who recently voted to scrap the ship, claim that they did so in the interests of public safety and fiscal responsibility. The stern has asbestos, and bird droppings, and rust, and no doubt has cobwebs too.  The cradle it sits on apparently also needs to be replaced.  Indeed, keeping the Flamborough Head, we were told (after the fact), was an act of heroism in the face of mounting costs to the public purse. Besides, as Mayor Mussatto reminded us in a recent Global News interview, “people don’t come to see things now – they come to do things…..they come to buy things”. Presumably the Flamborough Head provides neither anything to do, nor anything to buy, and so its value is to be relegated to the dustbin of tourism history along with other (perhaps more famous, yet equally ‘visual’ oriented) monuments such as Stonehenge, and la tour Eiffel, and Mount Rushmore (there are others, but I’ve already forgotten them).

But I digress, this story is not really about the Flamborough Head. Perhaps you’re surprised? Believe it or not, I’m actually a fan of preserving public safety and ensuring responsible management of the public purse. Rather, this story is a lament for the fact that the conversation about the fate of, and options for, the much discussed ship’s stern has been pieced together by journalists and citizens, and snippets of measured soundbites from beleaguered City Councillors and a slightly harried looking mayor.

I would ask, respectfully, when society first learned of the evils of asbestos? Surely it has been a while. We know what to look for now, we know when it is present. We know how to clean it up, and where to rent the hazmat suits required to do so. We (the taxpayers) have spent a remarkable amount of money already on preserving the Flamborough Head, on building a cradle for it to sit on, on moving it to its current location, on testing it for public safety concerns such as bird droppings and cobwebs, as well as, presumably, asbestos. I can’t imagine that engineers today know radically more about public safety than did the engineers who inspected the ship’s hull ten years ago. Or perhaps they do, but we don’t know it. The point is that nobody knows it! Why? Because the conversation happened, yet again, behind closed doors. All of these fantastic new revelations about the safety of the Flamborough Head, and the gargantuan effort that would be required to save it, happened “in camera”, that is out of the sight and sound, and scrutiny of the public and the press.

In the modern vernacular “in camera” is a slightly misleading term. For those new to the vocabulary of politics, the term comes from Latin, via the Greek word ‘kamara’ (object with an arched cover). In 17th century Italy and Spain the camera referred to the legislative or council chamber, and the term has persisted. For those new to North Van municipal politics, “in camera” refers to the part of the Monday night council agenda that usually comes right after the public input session at the beginning of the evening. It is when the council table clears, and our elected representatives file out of the room to discuss the burning issues too sensitive for the ears of mere mortals.

There is a legal precedent for this, a framework that is built into the community charter, that is used to determine when something is too dangerous, too sensitive, too confidential, too controversial(?), too big, too small, too inappropriate for our weak public sensitivities. I don’t begrudge them this. As every television censor knows, or anyone familiar with the antics of Toronto mayor Rob Ford, not all things are suitable for public discussion. I do have quite a fertile imagination however, and having never been “in camera” my mind rapidly conjures an image of candle-light, and our councillors donning black cloaks adorned with esoteric symbols. Maybe there’s a chant, or some kind of droning incantation to the lord of the dark arts. Who knows? What happens in there stays in there, as they say in Vegas. What I do know is that a lot of council business goes on in that room, and we don’t know the details of it. It is a blind spot in the cracked corner of the windshield of democracy.

Since the beginning of our organisation, the North Van Urban Forum has urged for transparency in all things community oriented. Paraphrasing myself from something I once wrote in a mini-manifesto, we are the public, and thus, one would assume, should have a say in the development of the public realm.  We don’t need to know all the gritty details of every matter that makes its way across the council desk, of course. The community charter lists about twenty provisions that could cause a matter to be considered suitable for a closed session, most of them reasonable. The charter lays out protecting personal information of personnel, or matters that involve pending or ongoing litigation, or matters that might jeopardise a law enforcement investigation. Nobody questions the need for such matters to remain behind closed doors.yourgov_councilagenda

There is a telling wording at the beginning of the section of the charter pertaining to in camera matters, however. “A meeting of the council must be open to the public, except as provided in this division.” The charter then goes on to reference “meetings that may or must be closed to the public”. We’re not overly concerned with the ‘must’ – we are concerning ourselves here with the ‘may‘. Some of the charter provisions are quite noticeably vague. Try this one:

(e) the acquisition, disposition or expropriation of land or improvements, if the

council considers that disclosure could reasonably be expected to harm the

interests of the municipality;

What does “harm the interests of the municipality” mean?  Forgive me for reaching for an extreme example here, but if a hotel chain wished to lease a piece of public land, for their own benefit and at the expense of other less commercial but more community oriented public activities, could such a decision be allowed to occur in a closed session of council under the provision above – could handing over public lands to private interests be a disclosure reasonably expected to harm the interests of the municipality and thus be a decision best left for a closed door meeting? Is harm measured in terms of reputation, as well as financial, physical or a compromise to public safety?

The decision to discuss the fate of the Flamborough Head in camera was made under the auspices of provision (d). Provision (d) states that a matter may be referred to a closed session if it relates to “the security of the property of the municipality”. Soundbites made in interviews after the fact reference a matter of cost – yes, the Flamborough Head could be saved, but at an extraordinary cost. One questions, then, whether the entire discussion was about security, as opposed to financial decisions to mitigate any such security concerns. Why were these discussions not fit for public ears?

Is there really so much going on that we can’t handle – enough to take up virtually an hour of every second council meeting? What other matters of vital community interest have been designated too sensitive for public consumption? What other votes have occurred in that hallowed hall to strip our city of beloved landmarks, or aquiesce to the urges of a persuasive developer, or capitulate to the stern requests of an over-reaching port metro authority? As a friend wisely reminded me when voicing the same question earlier, we don’t know what we don’t know.

The reason that we fight so hard for transparency is not that we necessarily believe that anyone’s intentions are shady. We do not assume that our representatives are acting in bad faith, or irresponsibly, or acting in the name of a private or divisive agenda. Rather, when too much is left to the imagination, as with my freemasonesque delusions, the imagination goes to dark places. The North Van Urban Forum has an ear to the ground when it comes to community sentiment – and it is obvious that when matters are left secret, or under-discussed, or when speakers are dismissed in public input sessions before council, or shut down too early in public question periods, then conspiracy theorists emerge. When citizens don’t know what is going on in their own city, they fill in the blanks themselves, and not always giving the benefit of the doubt to the officials that represent them.

This is why we fight so hard for transparency. Because we want our representatives to be fighting for our interests in plain sight. We want to maximise dialogue, and minimise pedagogy. We want the act of city building to be a collaborative effort. The more that is hidden, the greater the divisions that arise.  So here’s my challenge to the staff and council of North Vancouver city: Show a little faith in your citizens and their collective experiences. Maximise your opportunities for conversation, seek out opportunities to engage, remain open to feedback – and recognise that obscuring the issues that most affect our communities only leads to mistrust.

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