Monday, October 11, 2010

Forcing their doors open

This one`s at least a week old, but I wanted to write about it here because open-access and open government is one of my pet projects as a journalist. Though it`s not being maintained while I`m on fellowship, the "Open your doors, Oxford" section of my newspaper's political blog is a good example of some of the work I've done trying to educate people on why they should care about when their councils meet behind closed doors.
The Record was the newspaper excluded from covering a Waterloo Region District School Board committee meeting on Oct. 4. Two days later, it published the article linked above with the director of education and chair's apology to the Record and reporter Luisa D'Amato for kicking her out of the meeting.
“There was no malice, and I really regret that it happened,” Waterloo Region District School Board chair Mike Ramsay said Tuesday.
The meeting at issue was Monday’s agenda development committee, which was deciding when to hear a motion about school bus service for 400 students.
The Record was interested in the meeting because families were anxious to make their case to trustees as soon as possible. There were, however, some concerns that the motion would not be considered high priority and would not be heard by trustees promptly.
On Monday, the Record was denied access to the meeting. Ramsay, who also chairs the committee, had said it was a “management meeting.” Education director Linda Fabi had said that the meetings of this particular committee are not open to the public, and the board has always done its business this way.
I'm curious as to what kind of reaction this has drawn among the chattering classes in the Region of Waterloo. D'Amato explained in the article that much like municipalities, school boards and all their committees are bound by (in this case) the Education Act's section on closed-door meetings. I suspect that like at the WRDSB, boards have a tradition of being very unaware of this. Already struggling to attract any sort of public crowd on a good night to regular board meetings, it's no surprise to me that many committee meetings attract nothing but staff members and/or trustees. That doesn't mean they're closed to the public, as this board had assumed.
I rallied against the continual abuse of closed-door provisions in the district board that I cover, given they'd built a provision into their bylaws (one that contravened the act, by my read) -- Sec. 5.19 on page 11 -- that allows for closed-door "focus groups." The board was holding an average of two of these a year until halfway through this term. As much as I would write about them, no one cared. Which only made my blood boil even more, since these focus groups were being called to discuss things like the budget, school accommodation and other issues where there was actually a public interest.
When I polled trustees, one replied he didn't want the public to see the trustees' "family feud," and that certain trustees wanted a smaller setting to express their views. My reply was that elected office is a challenging responsibility-- if a trustee couldn't respectfully state their opinion and disagree during the discussion of a certain issue then it should cause that person to question why they're an elected official.
Anyway, kudos to the Record for pushing back and getting the apology.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you on this issue ER. The response from the trustees and board chair are quite pathetic and remind me once again why school boards no longer guarantee their school communities the representation they deserve and publicly. I would bet that there are boards and municipalities abusing the "in camera" motion but if there's no one around to witness the media who will notice?

Education reporters do a heavy lifting job and do many boards a favour in reporting on them.

Maybe education reporters shouldn't make it so easy for boards to gain their attention.

Perhaps media would do well to focus on those boards that fully recognize and welcome the media's work? They do exist.

Education Reporter said...

Anon 11 Oct. 16:39
It's not just a media issue-- boards that are open to all should be acknowledged for it and those that are closed or secretive should be admonished.

After all, as a journalist, I have no more right to attend a meeting than any other member of the public. Though journos are often the only members of the public present, that's the role we fulfill when present-- the same as any member of the public.

So boards that post every agenda, in full, along with all accompanying reports for all board and committee meetings should be applauded. I don't know if they exist, as even in the better of the two boards I have regularly covered, full committee agendas are not available online (you have to be present at the committee meetings to receive full agendas-- and if you don't call ahead advising of your presence there may not even be a copy for you). I have routinely sat at council and board meetings where last-minute information is distributed to councillors or board members that is not distributed to those in the gallery. If something is distributed in open session, it's a public document and copies should be available for all.

I can easily surmise how the WRDSB situation arose-- a public committee that has never seen a member of the public (of any stripe) present. When one shows up, since no one has ever attended before the auto-assumption is it's a private meeting.

With the online resources that exist today, there simply is no excuse for a board that doesn't publish all its agenda materials and related reports online. It's so easy to do.


Anonymous said...

here's some terrific reporting out of Toronto today ER - check out the chart.


Candidate releases "sunshine list", calls for ban on union donations to prevent potential conflict of interest.

TORONTO, SEP 13 Toronto taxpayers and public-school parents may be surprised to learn that a majority of incumbent Toronto District School Board (TDSB) trustees relied on union contributions to finance up to two-thirds of their election campaigns.

The findings were gleaned from an analysis of candidates' financial reports from the 2006 election (City of Toronto website). According to Neil Flagg, candidate for trustee in WARD 5 (York Centre), 15 out of 22 elected trustees (68%) received union donations during the 2006 election, and of the 15 incumbents, 12 are seeking re-election in 2010. If re-elected, these incumbents would constitute a majority (55%) at the Board.

"The potential for conflict of interest in allowing unions to fund campaigns is obvious, and was recognized as such by the City of Toronto when council voted to ban union donations. Accountability at the TDSB begins when we know that trustees truly have the best interests of their constituents, and the taxpayers, at heart." said Neil Flagg. “The prevailing mood among Toronto voters is that the status quo at City Hall is no longer acceptable; I intend to bring that spirit of accountability and respect for taxpayers to the boardroom at the TDSB.”

Mr. Flagg will not be accepting union donations, and challenges all other candidates for Trustee to put taxpayers and parents' interests first.

For biographical information about the candidate, please visit

Holy Crap! These CUPE Trusties have their campaigns funded in amounts that have exceeded 80% of total expenditure if the donations from the CUPE linked Campaign for Public Education are included! No wonder our schoolboards are broke! Their being run by CUPE, a predatory public service union!

This spreadsheet shows the campaign donations made by CUPE and the Campaign for Public Education to fund their slate of " Union Thug endorsed candidates" in 2006, many of the "CUPE Trusties" are seeking re-election.

TDSBteacher said...

I'm not au courant with the current practice at the TDSB, but the predecessor TBE held most of its meetings openly, including committee meetings. The exceptions were certain meetings of the Personnel and Organization committee which discussed private staffing issues; they would meet in camera for these matters, then resume an open meeting for the rest of the agenda.

Information was pretty easy to come by, but this was before web-based minutes and agenda were options.Agenda and minutes of meetings were routinely sent out to schools (and presumably to others on the mailing list). Trustees had more powers then, and more ability to represent their constituents effectively; they also had greater access to information, and had staff to research and pursue matters for them, separate from what information they were fed by senior administration.

So reasonable openness is possible and has precedent; whether it is commonplace nowadays I can't say. It should be the norm.

Education Reporter said...

Anon 13 Oct. 12:24
Please quote a source or provide a link-- I don't know who owns the copyright on what you've posted and by keeping it here I'm violating that copyright.

As to the issue itself, union donations to political campaigns are important to note, but they're hardly old news. Teachers' and ed workers' unions have routinely contributed token amounts to trustee candidates because money talks. It may not necessarily mean it buys access or privilege, but it talks. Police and firefighter unions also famously donate to municipal campaigns.

I would hope local media are reporting on all campaign disclosures on the day the candidates' deadline for filing them has passed.

Thanks for the context. Good to hear the practice was in place. A good trustee can still get the information s/he needs today, even if the process by which that information is requested or researched is different. An engaged constituent should be able to do the same.


Anonymous said...

Source is here ER