Trans­parency is not a buzz word

The Victoria Standard - - Commentary -

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.

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