Transparency is not a buzz word
Shortly after the special election that Carolyn Barber recounts in this issue, I was approached in public by a Village of Baddeck Commissioner with a stern message.
“The Village wants you to back off.”
This communique constitutes media interference by an elected official. It is unethical, and potentially a threat. I did not ask the individual what would happen if The Standard did not comply. Nonetheless, I chose to see it as the reaction of a group unaccustomed to being held accountable, and thus feeling threatened.
What was more concerning is what was said to me next - an accusation that The Standard only asks questions of the Village to publicly embarrass sitting Commissioners. Nothing could be further from the truth.
As I have said to Commissioners in person, I respect and appreciate the numerous hours that each of them have given in the name of civil service. Yet, volunteer position or not, a Commissioner is an elected official who holds public office and must be held accountable for their words and actions as they pertain to that office. Contrary to my visitor’s further description of our questions as ‘attacking’, The Standard believes our questions have remained focused on the intent to obtain information. Our questions have purposefully had nothing to do with the personalities or personal lives of any Commission member. Nor, to this point, have they been accusatory in nature. Pointed should not be conflated with attacking.
From the outset of covering the Village of Baddeck Commission, The Standard has been met with a consistent pattern of resistance, and at times, outright denial for information that should be publicly available. Much of this stonewalling has come from Clerk-treasurer Erin Bradley who originally demanded that all communications between The Standard and Commissioners go through her. It is difficult to know whether this reign on information has been instructed by the Commission at large, or if it is an individual stance that Bradley has injected into her position.
Either way, an established pattern of denying the media access to representatives and information only causes The Standard to grow ever skeptical of what is happening behind closed doors. Denying the media information means denying the public their right to know what their government is or isn’t doing. It may be on a very different political scale, but it is not unwarranted to compare the closed nature of the Commission with the current Trump White House or the former Prime Minister’s Office during the Harper era. How many people at this point believe Trump and his associates have nothing to hide?
During the last federal election, a Trudeau supporter began to heckle a journalist as they attempted to ask him a question. Trudeau interjected and addressed the heckler.
"We respect journalists in this country. They ask tough questions, and they're supposed to."
Returning to the visit of the Commissioner, I attempted to provide him with a similar explanation of why The Standard asks questions.
“We ask questions to maintain a level of transparency in our governments,” I responded.
“Bah,” the Commissioner said, “transparency is a buzz word.”
And that, right there, is what is so deeply concerning about the attitude of the current Commission. I have chosen not to name the Commissioner that spoke to me because in our time covering the Commission, the words of this Commissioner are representative of the entire Commission’s behavior towards The Standard and our attempt at increased transparency.
The Standard believes the Commission is represented by a group of knowledgeable people invested in their community. At the same time, The Standard recognizes that as volunteers with other commitments, the Commissioners can’t possibly be knowledgeable of all areas. We don’t demand that kind of expertise from full-time, paid representatives at other levels of government.
It is not the degree to which the Commission has carried out their duties that is at issue, it is the prevailing attitude the Commission has exhibited when it comes to media involvement and attempts to make the process of government more accessible to the public. Until last week, there had also been no sign that the Commission was willing to reach out for help when an issue was beyond their expertise.
That changed when Victoria County Communication Director Jocelyn Bethune was asked by the Commission to write a press release concerning the special election, and be available to speak to the media. Although the role has not yet been defined on paper, Bethune confirmed to The Standard on August 9 that the Commission’s intention was for her to work on improving communication between the Commission, the media and the public.
Adding Bethune to the Village roster is a welcomed addition. Recognition on the part of the Commission that assistance is indeed needed is also a welcomed breakthrough.
What remains to be seen is whether a change in approach has been genuinely embraced by the Commission, signaling a new era in open government in Baddeck. The Standard’s fear is that Bethune has been employed to run interference for the Commission much in the way that U.S. Press Secretary Sean Spicer was seen tap-dancing in front of the American press. Bethune is a seasoned writer, indicates a desire to provide the media with access to officials and wants to see a web and social media presence built for the Commission. It is The Standard’s sincere hope that her commitment to openness is also the Commission’s commitment to openness, and therefore allowed to flourish.