Finger pointing and passing the buck; just another day at City Hall

“Camouflage is a game we all like to play, but our secrets are as surely revealed by what we want to seem to be as by what we want to conceal.” —Russell Lynes

Unlike the last month or so, this time, when I write “there’s nothing to report about council,” it’s not because our elected municipal government was meeting in secret, but because they didn’t meet Tuesday night.

Nevertheless, council landed back in the news with a resounding thud Tuesday. Mayor Peter Kelly, in what can only be called a stunning reversal, sent out a press release letting the citizens know that he, His Worship, our Mayor, would have thought about it all weekend and that Council meets in secret too darn much. He’s going to personally fix the issue.

This, of course, came as a shock and surprise to pundits, journos and councilors. HRM staff were probably a little shocked as well, but they’re not really allowed to tweet about work.

“Why is this a surprise?” you may ask. Because the elected official who has singly, most bull-headedly blocked access, controlled and stage managed debate, denied discussion and embraced the culture of secrecy and denial at city hall is the mayor, Peter Kelly.

So it wasn’t just the blogs and twitter going bananas this afternoon. Mainstream media was fully engaged. Print journalists rallied at the watering hole to dissect the press release while radio hosts added the mayor “on the fly” to the end of their daily afternoon programs.

Yesterday, Rick Howe at News 95.7 came at the Mayor quite aggressively, questioning his latest flip flop.

And Tuesday afternoon, Kelly continued to point fingers at others, still playing his favorite role, the Family Circus character “not me.” It’s legal counsel’s fault. It’s the councilors’ fault. It’s the CAO’s fault. It’s an all-too-familiar pattern, with Kelly ignoring responsibility, and avoiding discussion all together.

Kelly’s response when questioned about his personal responsibility for the cloud of secrecy over city hall? “Rick, you have to let go of the past, we are going to move forward.”

Can I translate that into plain English? How about “I did a bad thing, but let’s not talk about that, I’ll be good, until I get caught again.”

Unfortunately for Kelly, his excuses don’t hold any water. Sometimes, council does have to meet in secret about contractual or employee issues. This is when a judgment call is made.

The Halifax Charter, a provincial law that sets up the city, says council “may meet in closed session.” May is conditional, so the law does not say “thou shalt not meet in open session.” It means it is up to the mayor and council, with advice from staff, to weigh the importance of secrecy versus transparency, openness, and accountability to voters.

While he has said he will propose changes to the rules to force council to meet more publicly, the simple fact of the matter is none of the rules say “council must meet in secret” about anything.

The only time council meets in secret is when it votes to meet in secret.

Sometimes council decides mid-meeting to meet in secret, but it usually votes to meet in secret if the agenda for the regular public meeting calls for a secret section of the meeting.

The agenda is drawn up with the full participation and leadership of the Mayor.

The mayor therefore decides what happens in secret, and so far, council has never, not once, voted to overrule him.

So of course council can meet in secret less frequently. All it takes is a mayor who is capable of telling right from wrong, providing leadership, with the ethical and moral compass that allows him or her to ensure only absolutely essential items get discussed in secret. This was true last week, last year, and it will be true no matter how the rules change.

Note to readers – in addition to my recurring role as the guy who “keeps an eye on City Hall” for CBC Mainstreet Nova Scotia, I am pleased to let you know I am now a guest blogger on Openfile Halifax.  I’ll be writing weekly about the comings and goings down at Grand Parade.  This is my first Openfile piece, I hope you enjoyed it!