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I had the opportunity to speak to Parry Sound Town Council last night regarding my request for media privileges. It was agenda item 9.2.2. The text of my deputation is provided below in italicized text.

My request for media privileges was denied following some debate. More debate than I have heard for other, more important, and more controversial issues. But in the end they largely felt that this would be opening the door for others to request similar privileges. These privileges would be limited to the right to make recordings of council proceedings without prior request of the mayor, and the right to attend media only council events. Not much I must confess, but an important statement concerning council’s desire to maintain a policy of open and transparent government.

Well, you can’t get want what you want if you don’t ask. I have no problem with the decision but I have a couple requests of council that I will send them in a formal letter. They are:

1. Will the town provide residents of Parry Sound with no cost access to the proceedings of council if these residents are unable to attend council meetings because of poor health, work and/or family obligations, travel issues or other reasons? Right now the only way a person can review the meetings is if they subscribe to Cogeco cable which implies a $300 to $400 annual cost. This seems an excessive burden to ensure transparency. There are options, see my comment about Sudbury in the text of the deputation below. (Full disclosure: I don’t subscribe to cable, satellite or other television service, so this would save me some money in case I were to miss a meeting of council, or not permitted to attend a council meeting that was restricted to traditional media.)

2. Will the town make a commitment to improving the user friendliness of the town’s website? As it stands now it is difficult to find recent announcements on the website. Too often important announcements are buried and hard to find while months old announcements are still posted on the site’s homepage. Tip – there are two ways to find things on the town’s website. Do a Google search using the following phrase – townofparrysound.com “searched term”. The “searched term” shouldn’t be in quotes. So for example if I want to find information on the recently approved retirement residence I would put into the Google search engine: “townofparrysound.com retirement” (no quotes). The search results will start with the results from the town’s website. Another approach is to click on ‘Site Map’ in the menu on the top left of the homepage. The menu bar at the top of the page is mostly useless. The link for Site Map will take you to a page that provides much more detail on the site’s contents. (Update: I was asked why not use the search box on the left hand side of the home page. Because it doesn’t work as well, not nearly as well! Try it. Do a search for retirement as I suggested above and then search the same word using the search box below the Home Menu. You tell me which does a better job.)

Here’s the text of my deposition. In it I also take council to task for the apparent hypocrisy of criticizing the Near North School Board for their lack of transparency and public involvement while doing exactly the same thing with their recent ‘Age in Place’ by-law. My deputation provides the details.

Deputation to Parry Sound town Council, February 5th, 2013. All text that was read at the meeting is presented in italics below. The section in bold is the resolution from the minutes of the Town of Parry Sound council meeting that I made reference to.

Thank you for this opportunity to speak to council.

This deputation concerns two issues. The first of which is my request for media privileges related to town council activities.

I made application a couple of weeks ago for media privileges so that I would be able to better cover council proceedings. I limited this request to, access to meetings that were limited to media, and the privilege to record portions of the town council, as is permitted traditional media outlets.

On Friday I received a copy of the council report and recommendation prepared by town staff on this issue. It recommended my request be denied.

In part the recommendation rested on the staff observation that Toronto does not extend such privileges to non-traditional media. While the report did note that the comparison was not perfect they still felt it was appropriate. I beg to differ.

Not only does Toronto have a population some 500 times greater than that of Parry Sound, it is home to dozens of traditional and possibly hundreds of nontraditional media. I can understand their policy. They already have considerable coverage of their events at the local, provincial, national and international levels. But, Toronto does have a significant program of outreach to the public that we do not have in Parry Sound. For example, Toronto offers email updates on council and committee activities that can be subscribed to. This provides email delivery of meeting agendas, announcements of changes, meeting minutes, a summary of key decisions and much more. The Toronto city clerk also provides the public with council updates using Twitter. These are programs which I have asked staff and council to consider as part of making it easier for residents to understand what is happening at council.

I would ask that my request for media privileges be held to the same standard that council and staff holds themselves with respect to media outreach. If you are willing to provide the services offered by Toronto I am willing to accept their non-traditional media policy.

I was particularly surprised that staff would have benchmarked Parry Sound against a Southern Ontario city. We are a proud Northern Ontario city. I suggest we be careful about identifying ourselves as anything but.

Turning to Northern Ontario, I do note that Sudbury offers next day webcasts of their council meetings. This means that residents can see the very next day what is going on without having to subscribe to a service that costs on the order of $400 per year. Those without internet service in Sudbury would be able to go to their local library and watch the webcast at no cost, and on their schedule. And Sudbury has 5 years of council meetings available for viewing on demand. In Parry Sound I am unable to see the proceedings of an earlier council meeting without a cable TV subscription. Offering a Sudbury type service in Parry Sound would mean that I could ‘attend’ all council meetings, even those that are restricted to ‘traditional media’ so long as they are recorded and streamed over the internet.

The second topic of this deputation relates to council’s decision to review and de facto approve the ‘Age in Place’ proposal in a closed session of council.

This is a multi-million dollar project for which town residents have received very little information and no opportunity to provide input. I have seen council discuss and debate in great detail pennies on the ton differences in costs for road salt, and plowing responsibilities for rental properties. Yet on this multi-million dollar project we get a reading of the by-law and essentially a unanimous vote of approval. Has council lost its voice?

Why wasn’t this item reviewed in closed session, if necessary to ensure confidentiality, and then put on the agenda for the following session of council with the appropriate supporting materials included in the council package for public review? This would have given the public the opportunity to review and provide input.

Is it a good deal for Parry Sound? Quite possibly. But we really can’t be sure because we are not provided the necessary information to understand what’s involved. What do we really know about the project and the developer and the local impact if all we are provided is a press release. And even this press release is only made available as a Word document, not the much more accessible Adobe Acrobat format, and it’s not posted on the front page on the town’s website where it could be easily found by interested residents.

It’s likely that council feels they were following the normal council procedures, and that any complaints about how the process and approval were handled are unwarranted.

What then does council have to say about the recent controversy concerning the decision made by the Near North School Board to move Grade 7 & 8 students to the high school? I’m sure the school board followed the approved process for reviewing and making a decision. But it was this council that passed a resolution on the matter. I will read you your resolution:

RESOLUTION 2012 – 214

WHEREAS the Near North District School Board passed a motion at its recent Board meeting to move Grades 7 & 8’s from local public schools to Parry Sound High School; and

WHEREAS the Board at this meeting added this item to the agenda as a last minute agenda item without any public notification; and WHEREAS the local Board trustee who represents the parents in the affected area was also unaware until the Chair requested the addition of the items to the agenda; and

WHEREAS the Board has not provided any justification or documentation showing the benefits to their decision or any plan showing how it is to be implemented; and

WHEREAS the whole process has been done without involving or seeking input from affected parents and students;

NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Council for the Town of Parry Sound supports the Township of Carling’s request that the Minister of Education, the Honourable Laurel Broten, intervene in this case and send Ministry staff in to review and report to the local communities on how the Near North District School Board conducts its meetings and it financial business; and

FURTHER BE IT RESOLVED that the Chair of the Near North School Board, Kathy Hewitt be forced to resign her position as Chair over the way this issue has been handled under her leadership; and

FURTHER BE IT RESOLVED that a copy of this resolution be provided to Jim Beatty, School Board Trustee, Norm Miller, M.P.P., Parry Sound-Muskoka, Vic Fedeli, M. P. P., Nipissing and to the West Parry Sound Municipalities, to request their support.

CARRIED

I would suggest that the school board’s decision was no less transparent than council’s regarding the ‘Age in Place’ approval. Where was the public information, where was the discussion, where was the opportunity to provide public input? Where was this scheduled? This is not a simple pennies on a ton type decision for which we were provided much more information and an opportunity to input.

And this council asked for a person to be removed from their elected office. Is council willing to hold themselves to the same standards of conduct?

Of particular concern is the decision to sell the property for this development for $250,000, and then waive the by-law requiring a market assessment of its real value. No concessions were offered to the developer? We’ll never know will we?

All of this leads me to ask what council plans to do regarding an upcoming decision to invest $10 to $20 million in new generating capacity at the Cascade Street Generating Station. Will this be another closed session discussion and decision then added at the last minute to the open council agenda for a unanimous vote with no review and debate? I certainly hope not. And I’m not sure the traditional media has yet recognized that this issue is in the offing.

I believe there is a role in Parry Sound for non-traditional media. I hope you will reject the staff recommendation and approve my request. And in the near future I hope you will ask staff to review and update their policy and procedures for communicating council activities with town residents. The current procedures are in dire need of updating.

And let’s all of us hold ourselves to the same standards that we hold others.