Commentary

Reporters Barred from Electronic Recording at Committee Meeting

If you look at the agenda's requirement that no cell phones, pagers or Blackberry devices be in the room, it shows someone with one foot firmly in the past and the other foot firmly in their mouth.

By James Arlen
Published May 05, 2014

If you take a look through the twitter feeds of reporters Matt Van Dongen and Joey Coleman this morning, you'll see a tale told of City Staff preventing two journalists from doing their job.

I know that there are often good reasons for the business of the city to be confidential. There are methods that are used to invoke that need for confidentiality.

That City Staff are preventing Matt and Joey from doing the job that they have been deputized by the residents of the city to do is 'entertaining' (note the quotes).

There is a staffer who is obviously afraid and hiding something. If you look at the agenda's requirement that no cell phones, pagers or Blackberry devices be in the room, it shows someone with one foot firmly in the past and the other foot firmly in their mouth.

I promise that I'll keep my 2004 technology out of committee meetings as long as that staffer promises to retire when they reach the mandatory age of too damn old to be connected to reality.

The saga of Transparency and Accountability in this most recent round of civic politics has underscored to me the level of disconnect of many councillors and many many staff. Is there something in the Kool Aid delivered to civic politicians and staff that causes these hallucinations of grandeur?

I can't go to the many meetings that take place during business hours because I'm, you know, working. I can sometimes keep track by watching the livestreams - and not the blurry, proprietary, thousand-yard view that I pay taxes for - but I am regularly reading the news (Hamilton Spectator, Raise the Hammer, and Joey) to keep up with what is transpiring in my adopted city.

If the situation around journalist access to City proceedings - including timely release of agendas and supporting materials, access to meetings, ability to use modern note-taking tools, and deputized/proxy presence tools like Joey's livestreaming - cannot be rectified in a permanent manner with due haste, I will not be the only person who takes up Hamilton's City Hall as my new favourite co-working space/coffee shop.

I'll be in every meeting with my coffee and laptop still doing my job, but keeping an eye on the goings on. And I will not hesitate for even a moment to publish the names and photographs of the city staffers who impede resident/citizen access to information regarding the actions of our city.

This is something that the journalists are not currently doing out of a sense of professional ethics and notional shared professionalism with City Staff. I don't have that particular impediment and no compulsion whatsoever to save a staffer from their own shortsightedness.

Who will be the first councillor who stands for the people and makes Transparency and Accountability the second issue of this year's elections?

Editor's note: a version of this letter was written to James Arlen's councillor, Sam Merulla. With Arlen's permission, it has been edited slightly for publication here. It is licenced under Creative Commons CC-BY.

James Arlen, CISA, is a senior consultant at Leviathan Security Group providing security consulting services to the utility and financial verticals. He has been involved with implementing a practical level of information security in Fortune 500, TSE 100, and major public-sector corporations for 18+ years. James is also a contributing analyst with Securosis and has a recurring column on Liquidmatrix Security Digest. Best described as: "Infosec geek, hacker, social activist, author, speaker, and parent." His areas of interest include organizational change, social engineering, blinky lights and shiny things. http://jamesarlen.net/ Note: his RTH username is "Myrcurial"

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted May 05, 2014 at 13:06:34

James as I indicated on my Twitter (@craig_burley) I have communicated with Joey about some of the legal aspects here and offered to help navigate these issues with the City. The issue is complex but I think there's been a mistake made somewhere along the line on two fronts: first about what the legal requirements are for the Property Standards Committee (which is not controlled by the City per se) and second about what they should be doing to try to comply with openness and transparency standards generally.

But I'm hopeful that any such efforts on my part won't be necessary, and the Committee will realize that it has erred here.

Comment edited by Tybalt on 2014-05-05 13:08:15

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By myrcurial (registered) - website | Posted May 05, 2014 at 13:10:30

Legality < Morality

Attempts to avoid Transparency lead to the Streisand Effect.

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted May 05, 2014 at 13:21:54

Well I agree in general, of course, but the Committee is a legal body, created and mandated by statute and rule, and compliance with those laws is important, including the positive duty in some cases to take matters in camera or make them confidential. I am hoping that the Committee (and the City) can be persuaded that they actually do have positive duties to fully open these meetings to public and press.

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By erskinec (registered) - website | Posted May 05, 2014 at 13:27:34

I took the morning off to attend this meeting. Item 5.1 was suppose to deal with the Gore Park Buildings but because the developer took steps prior to the meeting to address the Property Standards concerns, there was no issue before the committee.

I wasn't sure if Joey Coleman would be able to cover the meeting with live or archived coverage. I also encouraged people to attend the meeting to show support.

So, the morning was wasted. For people who care about certain issues, we can't afford to re-schedule our lives, our family lives, and employer lives, to deal with the whims of Committee Chairs.

This is why Joey Coleman's work is so important. He is our eyes and hears at these meetings. Particularly when you are following an issue closely because it affect your business, neighbourhood, or passion. Quite frankly, a few lines in a newspaper, radio, or TV, won't cut it. I mean no disrespect to the hardworking journalists at the traditional media outlets, but sometimes you just need more.

This why Joey Coleman is absolutely essential.

Now, I can appreciate some of the concerns of the committee, but really most of it was quite silly.

Comments like "how public is public" or "is it public for all purposes?"

Eventually the committee came down to deciding how much of a difference there was between written notes, electronic notes, and electronic records for broadcast.

Totally silly arguments for 2014.

Comment edited by erskinec on 2014-05-05 13:35:16

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By myrcurial (registered) - website | Posted May 05, 2014 at 17:33:59

I had an enlightening conversation with a committee member.

In short - I believe that the committee understands the importance of balance between the public right to know and the individual's right to privacy regarding their personal lives. I also believe that the committee is capable of utilizing their own judgement (given that we are asking them to sit as a quasi-judicial body) to determine when to ask that observers, journalists and proxies discontinue recording/broadcast or even to have them exit the room for an in camera discussion.

The default stance of all city government must be Transparent and Accountable. When there is a requirement to reduce transparency, it should be undertaken as a grave matter. The current capriciousness of council declaring In Camera at the slightest chance of the potential that a resident would hold their feet to the fire is unbelievably wrong.

The city needs a policy that specifically permits residents, journalists, observers and proxies* to attend meetings of any committee unless there is a clearly articulated reason for an in camera session. In the case of this morning's meeting, the discussion of property standards as they relate to the Gore Park civic gong show is absolutely in the interests of all Hamiltonians. The subsequent discussions around the enforcement against residents in their primary domicile is reasonably acceptable to keep private and unreported. The professionalism of Matt and Joey is such that if you told them "please don't report verbatim on these issues" would be more than sufficient. In one paragraph, we've solved the situation cleanly and without the need to invoke an In Camera session.

If I can solve it in one paragraph, how come City Clerks can't seem to see past the end of their noses?

Yeah.

  • in this case, proxy is the most appropriate term. I am not reading Joey's interpretation of the event, but rather relying on him to be my stand-in for the purposes of my attendance as a resident of the city. That Joey is also a journalist is secondary to the mission which he undertook for me.

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By scrap (anonymous) | Posted May 05, 2014 at 20:43:01

These are my thoughts regarding property standards and the public's right to know.

It is a fact that many low income people live in substandard conditions where getting property standards by law enforcers involved is a difficult process.It would be the people's best interest that the entire community has knowledge of these bad landlords whether they are private or city managed like city housing.

Too much secrecy going on in our world today and that is a shame.

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