Victoria’s police board faces a major challenge in rebuilding public trust after a provincial report found it was failing in its basic responsibilities. Members need to start with greater openness and accountability to show they have learned from their past poor performance.
The board has begun releasing agendas for its in-camera sessions — the meetings behind closed doors.
On one hand, that’s a positive step.
On the other, it reveals a penchant for needless secrecy. Even the decision to share the agendas was made in camera last year, instead of in an open meeting.
The January in-camera agenda — the first released — includes items that could be dealt with in public session. In one case, a basic report on staffing, which was tabled and discussed in a public meeting in the past, is now presented behind closed doors.
More damaging is the decision to move an update on the implementation of the provincial mediator’s report behind closed doors.
The report by mediator Jean Greatbatch outlined a series of failures by the provincial government, the police department, municipal politicians and police board members. The poor performance contributed to Esquimalt’s dissatisfaction with Victoria police services, forced on the municipality by the provincial government in 2003.
The report found the police board failed to fulfil its basic responsibilities. It didn’t prepare required business plans for the force or set performance objectives. Strategic planning was badly neglected. The police department set the agenda for board meetings, not the chair. Greatbatch found members were confused about the board’s fundamental role and hadn’t set procedures to provide proper oversight and policy direction.
Almost seven months later, it’s unclear what has changed.
The police board had a chance to discuss implementation progress in the open meeting, as it has in the past. Instead, it moved behind closed doors. The public does not know what board members said, or decided, or what progress has or hasn’t been made.
The Police Act says board meetings should be open, with a few exceptions. If disclosure of information would “seriously impair” effective policing, the board is allowed to go behind closed doors. The same is true if a matter concerns an individual’s financial or personal affairs, and the board concludes their privacy outweighs the public interest, or an individual asks to provide information in secret. Labour and personnel issues can also be handled in camera.
It might be that some elements in implementing the mediator’s report, the finance committee report and other items presented in-camera qualified under those rules. But imposing secrecy on entire discussions is contrary to basic principles of openness and accountability.
Policing matters, in terms of security and taxes. In Victoria, policing costs have been rising more than twice as fast as other city spending. Board leadership — Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin and Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins — should be advocating for open discussions.
The police board’s record of poor performance, set out in the mediator’s report, only makes it more urgent that members commit to doing as much as possible in public — not behind closed doors.
© Copyright 2013