There’s been talk, again, in recent days about information being leaked from in-camera (closed session) meetings to the media.
And I have so many things to say about this that I thought I’d lay them all out here on the blog.
In no particular order:
1) The suggestions by some of my colleagues that the information that’s been leaked to the media has eroded trust in our Regional government are erroneous and disingenuous. It is due to the leaks of the last several years that unethical and corrupt behaviour was revealed to the public, and I – for one – am grateful, as I know many members of the community are, that the individuals who knew of this behaviour found a way to get the information out to the public.
2) It should also be noted (and please feel free to correct me if I’m mistaken) that extremely limited types of information have been leaked to the media. I can’t think of any in-camera items that have been leaked to and reported on by the media that weren’t directly tied to some sort of unethical or corrupt behaviour. Even in the case of what has been leaked to the media, I can’t think of any strategic advice that has been reported.
3) The suggestions by some of my colleagues that the leaks are from new councillors or are due to people not understanding their role because they haven’t been at Council for 10+ or 20+ years are silly. I’m not saying that the local media doesn’t have sources who are new to Council this term. I couldn’t make a statement as bold as that and know that it is correct. However, nearly all of us come to Regional Council this term with experience on other councils or through our employment, volunteer work on boards, etc. that would make us very aware of our roles and responsibilities (never mind that we also attended several orientation sessions by staff before the term began). Furthermore, the leaks have been happening for nearly four years, so suggesting it’s down to new councillors just doesn’t make any sense in that regard.
4) If it is only councillors who are leaking information to the media (I’m not suggesting it is, but – again – I can’t make any statements one way or the other that could be correct, because I don’t know), it would have to be more than one councillor. There is no way in the world that a journalist – who doesn’t want to destroy their own career – is going to take the word of a single source if that source is refusing to be named. The journalists at the St. Catharines Standard actually recorded a podcast, which can be found here (skip to 5:30), discussing this exact thing. There is also this column by Grant LaFleche about how he worked with anonymous sources.
5) My colleagues should not be sending the e-mails they’ve been sending, as e-mail communications between/to all of Council could be construed as a ‘meeting,’ and our meetings are – except in limited circumstances – to be open to the public. It is for this reason that I’ve chosen to say these things via my blog, rather than in an e-mail to my colleagues, and also because it appears the e-mails will get to the media anyway, so it may as well be all laid out here.
6) There are extremely limited repercussions for leaking information to the media. Councillors are bound by confidentiality rules and we swear an oath. For breaking the rules of confidentiality, we can be personally sued. In the case of these particular leaks to the media, who’s going to do that? If it was a property matter, the other party/ies in the matter may sue a councillor personally. In the case of the nature of the information that has been leaked, I suppose Caslin, D’Amboise, D’Angelo, or Tamming might sue, but I’m not sure how likely it is that they want even more attention at present, plus they’d have to ask the journalists at the St. Catharines Standard for the information on who leaked to the media and – even if the journalists were going to give up their sources – we all know that none of those four gentlemen have viewed or spoken about the local media in a particularly positive manner, so what’s the likelihood they’d make that ask?
7) This continuous railing on about leaks to the media – when it has become very clear that it’s not going to stop – can serve only two purposes, in my view. Those are: a) to divide Council as people make assumptions about who is leaking information to the media and others get tired of listening to or reading the railing on about the leaks; and b) to have the public continue to call for more transparency, which isn’t possible, as we’re already being as transparent as we can be (based on the Municipal Act), and I humbly ask you, reader, to believe/trust me when I say that.
All of that said, I do need people to understand that whilst you may think that all regional matters should be discussed publicly, they simply can’t be. According to the Municipal Act, meetings shall be open to the public except (broadly) when the subject matter is related to legal, property, or personal issues about identifiable individuals. Imagine the potential repercussions to the Region if we discussed legal strategy in open session or if we discussed a contract negotiation in open session. It is just not reasonable and would be detrimental to our ability to do business.
I want to wrap all of this up by saying that there is no reason – in my view – why we shouldn’t be able to work with the media. In my experience, the media does not set out to destroy people or organizations. Journalists report the facts and they can be a very helpful way to get messages out to the wider community. When I worked for a local municipality, it was never my experience that the journalists of the day were out to get me. I really viewed my professional relationship with those journalists as one of allyship. They could help me get the clear and correct message out to the community, and they could get the information out to a wider audience than we could as a municipality (because precious few people read the information you put in with their water bills). Did they occasionally report things that we wished they hadn’t reported or that we wished they hadn’t reported in the way they did? Absolutely. We also recognized they were doing their jobs and we could view their reporting as ways for us to improve how we communicated or conducted business.
Now, if Council would get back to conducting the business of the Region and focusing on what we can do to improve our community and how we serve them, I think we’d all be better off.
The leaks will stop when there is nothing more to leak. And, yes, I hope that’s very soon.
In the interest of full disclosure (though this is all already known):
I have worked in public relations/communications where clients were agencies or departments from various levels of government;
I have worked for a local municipality where my role was to communicate issues to the public and help/try to manage communications;
I am certified by AMCTO in Municipal Administration (which, along with the above, means I know the Municipal Act well);
I have written several columns for the St. Catharines Standard (on a volunteer basis);
I have been a regular guest on 610 CKTB (on a volunteer basis);
I have been a city councillor for St. Catharines; and – of course –
I am now a regional councillor representing St. Catharines.