Friday, May 4, 2018

One Step Forward, Ten Steps Back

Closed Session. That is phrase that will become more and more common in the UNA Board vocabulary. It's a shame given that even the UBC Board of Governors, famous for their secrecy these past few years, has turned a new leaf and is busy revamping governance structures in order to be more open, democratic, and transparent.  The UNA, however, is going the other direction and has decided to close the door on transparency by closing 50% of the board's meetings.

The UNA Board had this to report on their closed meeting policy in April:
A quick note on the closed meetings. We have identified six this year, but may not need all. They are placeholders to ensure the time is in everyone’s calendar if we need them. The number of closed meetings will vary from year to year depending on the need.   The criteria for what is discussed in a closed meeting and what is discussed in an open meeting has not changed. Those criteria are consistent with those of similar organizations. The value of closed meetings is to provide a space to exchange a number of ideas and options on potentially sensitive issues prior to public discussions. It encourages a better idea exchange in a way that doesn’t risk adversely affecting external parties.    We remain committed to reporting on decisions made and outlining the issues that were on the table.  
It is nice that they "remain committed to reporting on decisions made" in closed sessions. But that really misses the point. So far one of the primary "sensitive" items they felt the need to discus in private was a strategic plan.  A secret discussion that has resulted in the spending of thousands of dollars for yet another consultant close friend of UBC.  It's wonderful that the UNA will bring the spending decision to their public meeting but I suspect the board will simply rubber stamp an expensive strategic plan consultant contract and the process that led to this decision will remain clouded in secrecy. Any rationale for the expensive project will reflect an agreed upon script that will paper over any of the diverse perspectives that should properly be heard in public session.

Democracy requires a willingness to be subjected to the public gaze.  No amount of hiding in private removes that obligation. If our directors feel constrained to speak publicly, if they are uncomfortable expressing themselves in front of an audience, then they really have no place in public governance. 

In 2012 when I ran for election to the UNA Board I did so on a platform of democratic reform.  When we were elected we had high hopes for change. Yet very quickly democratic reform was thwarted by foot-dragging on the part of appointed directors and UNA staff.

In 2014 when I ran for reelection I did so in alliance with Alain Craigie, again on a democratic reform platform.  But by then the forces of open governance were weakening.  Attempts to open committees to public scrutiny kept getting shutdown. 

In 2016 with a new slate of resident directors in control (I did not run for reelection, deciding instead to run for election to the UBC Board of Governors) the standing committees were essentially shelved and today we are in the situation in which 50% of the Board meetings are held behind closed doors.

What a sorry state of affairs. Despite that brief glimmer of openings 6 years ago the situation in the UNA has in fact become far more restrictive, far more opaque. The model that is being held up as the exemplar is an old fashion corporate board.  More than ever we need to clean house and reform the UNA.

The UNA has failed as a municipal-like body (much of the current communications from the UNA has actually dropped that descriptor).  As the service levy crisis created by UBC's sweetheart deal with Metro Vancouver years ago is compounded by the added impact of the fire service fee download the fiscal solvency of the UNA is even more in question. UNA residents need real effective local government. We've gone past the point of tinker with structures and overpaid consultants reports. We need real change that brings in responsible government in our community.