OPENFILE: The windows are closed, again

Reality TV is still a big deal, right? Sure, sitcoms are ascendant (my favorite is Community, of course) butSurvivor is still on, The Amazing Race is a huge hit, and of course almost every show on the Food Network.

As of last night, my favorite reality show is HRM Council. Watching them debate reconsideration of the sale of St. Pat’s-Alexandra School was an intense roller-coaster ride, like some CBC version of an old West Wing episode.

The short version is: after making the citizens from the community supporting St. Pat’s wait four hours before the issue was brought to debate, council became a raucous political fight club, trying to beat each other to death with procedural wrangling.

On the one side was Jennifer Watts, moving to “stay” or hold the sale of St. Pat’s until staff reviewed whether HRM had followed its own process. The stay is vital, because if HRM later admits it did not follow process, but the sale was completed, it’d be too late to take the property back.

On the other side was, it seemed, mayor Kelly, CAO Richard Butts and legal counsel Mary Ellen Donovan, trying to protect the city from liability and “move forward,” despite the concerns of the community.

‘Public debate is the very air that democracy breathes,’ HRM Mayor Peter Kelly wrote in his surprise press release several weeks ago, concluding ‘We must open our windows as wide as possible to achieve that kind of ventilation.

The mayor tried to slam those windows closed yesterday, but Watts, with support from many councillors (Sloane, Barkhouse, Outhit) wouldn’t let it happen, at first.

Councillor Rankin was especially eloquent last night, insisting that “Council decides in this house, not staff.” His anger at the situation and his passion for transparency was palpable.

The city almost went in-camera, then adjourned, then re-voted on the adjournment and stayed open. Then they did go in-camera for a short “information meeting.”

With the windows firmly closed (though Outhit refused to participate), the “information” session must have become some kind of debate, because it went on and on. But at around one in the morning, council voted, in public, to stay the sale of St. Pat’s-Alexandra.

Watching on Haligonia’s feed last night, I was reminded again of the process around the Occupy Nova Scotia eviction.

Then, council made decisions in secret for “legal reasons.” To date, the minutes and reports that would tell us what the rationale was, what Council voted on or what they knew (or were told), hasn’t not been made public. That situation is over, but we still don’t know what transpired behind closed doors. The windows are painted shut.

Council again met in secret to receive advice around a sale where the written, approved process appears not to have been followed.

So the question has become this—what exactly was legal council advising council about? The possible legal fallout from delaying or stopping this sale? The liability created by not following process? The potential lawsuits from the community groups, other developers or citizens? The way staff and council did not, again, follow their own process?

Seems to me, if that is what was being discussed, then it should all be public.

Increasingly, it feels to me that council meets in secret to get legal advice about how to protect our government from consequences of failing to follow their own rules.

That puts council in the position of protecting HRM when it fails, rather than becoming inquisitors and auditors to find out why it failed, how it failed, and how to make sure it doesn’t happen again, which is what they were elected to do.

Problem is, we have no way of knowing what is really going on. The windows are still too firmly closed.