Citizens, former councillors call for more transparency at city hall
Published Thursday, December 20, 2012 2:25PM EST
Ever since Michael Applebaum became mayor the meetings of Montreal's executive committee have been taking place with a camera in the room.
Applebaum promised that transparency would be the order of the day for city affairs during his year in power, and now, once a month, Montrealers can see what is happening in the inner sanctum of power.
However the cameras are not on all the time.
They are shut down when sensitive details about budgets, security and zoning are discussed, and zoning is exactly where some people says there needs to be more transparency.
Warren Allmand is a former member of parliament and a former city councillor with Union Montreal in NDG, where Applebaum was borough mayor for many years.
One of Allmand's biggest disagreements with the now-mayor was over secrecy at the borough's urban planning committee, the CCU.
"It deals with amendments to the urban plan, it deals with changes in the zoning regulations, so it's things that people are interested in," said Allmand.
It's also a committee that, while chaired by Applebaum, always met behind closed doors.
"It was in private and I thought it should be in public," said Allmand.
"So on many many occasions I tried to open it up but I was voted down. I was always voted down by all the other members of the council including the Mayor, Applebaum."
Allmand says citizens weren't the only ones in the dark. By the time he and other councillors were asked to vote on recommendations it was hard to know what they were voting on.
"They'd come to the meetings with maybe 40-50 other items on the agenda with a background document that we usually got on a Friday and the meeting would be on a Monday," said Allmand.
"Once the recommendation was made by the CCU you didn't know what other alternatives [existed]."
Claude Casgrain is a longtime NDG resident, and seven years ago she fought to stop a pharmacy from being built at the corner of Cote St. Luc Rd. and Decarie Blvd.
She only found out about the project after the CCU had given it the green light.
"It was a surprise because a person just passing by saw a little square advertisement that the land was sold and the pharmacy was planned," said Casgrain.
Citizens mobilized, and managed to stop the project at the 11th hour, and Casgrain says that's not right.
"We learned too late about a project," said Casgrain.
NDG is not unique. All city boroughs have CCUs and almost all are closed, with the notable exception of St. Laurent, where the meetings and the information discussed are open to the public.
Borough mayor Alan DeSousa says the members of the CCU, architects, engineers and citizens, are chosen publicly and sit for limited terms.
"It's an open process. But one where we strive hard to make sure that there's no conflict of interest. and if people do feel that they have a conflict of interest they recuse themselves from the deliberation," said DeSousa.
Urban planning committees wield enormous influence over how a neighbourhood grows "so there's absolutely nothing on this committee that goes behind closed doors," DeSousa said.
Kathleen Duncan is a Westmount councillor who has studied CCUs and their equivalents around the world.
She found conducting urban planning in the open is good for democracy and good for everyone.
"Having done it in public is extremely efficient and actually adds to the buy-in from the community," said Duncan.
"As a governing body this should be as transparent as possible and out in public because of that."
However Applebaum says there are still good reasons to keep the public out.
"If you're an individual and you want to enlarge your house.it is your right to ask for that recommendation in private," said Applebaum.
He points out that eventually, all decisions are made public after the council votes on the matter.
But some question why the privacy of a citizen or a developer trumps the public's right to know.
"If you live in a neighbourhood you want to know if somebody's planning to change the rules in allowing gas stations at the head of your street or junkshops and so on," said Allmand.
With that in mind Allmand, among many others, hopes that allegations of corruption at city hall will convince Applebaum to opt for a new approach, and open up more of the city's business to the public.