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Battle for more transparency at CRD gaining momentum

Civic watchdog group gains backing of Victoria councillor for ‘best practices’
Photo - Victoria Coun. Ben Isitt
Victoria Coun. Ben Isitt is championing reforms advocated by the Grumpy Taxpayer$ of Greater Victoria.

A civic watchdog group has secured a key ally in its fight to improve transparency and governance at the Capital Regional District. Victoria Coun. Ben Isitt is now championing reforms advocated by the Grumpy Taxpayer$ of Greater Victoria.

On Wednesday, he urged fellow directors on the CRD board to endorse “best practices” that, among other things, would make it easier for the public to track politicians’ voting records and spending habits. “I think it would be a very positive way to start the term of a new board by indicating clearly to the public that we think transparency and accountability of regional government is important,” Isitt told the board’s inaugural meeting.

Isitt credited the Grumpy Taxpayer$ with doing the “heavy lifting” on the proposed reforms. The group researched measures used in other jurisdictions and made a compelling argument for change at the CRD, Isitt said.

Stan Bartlett, who chairs the Grumpy Taxpayer$, admitted to being caught off guard by Isitt’s support.

“I had to pinch myself that this actually made it to the table,” he said.

Isitt and the advocacy group want the board to:

• introduce an online “dashboard” like one used by the City of Vancouver that allows citizens to track how elected officials vote

• publish directors’ expenses on a quarterly basis as is done by the City of North Vancouver

• release decisions and reports from closed meetings as soon as the need for confidentiality ceases to exist

• post directors’ financial disclosure statements online and update them each year

• produce a “board highlights report” following meetings, as is done by the City of Victoria, so the public can keep up to date on key decisions without wading through massive agendas and numerous attachments

• provide clear summaries of financial information in the CRD’s annual report and include prominent links to the documents on the district’s website

Isitt argued that improved transparency leads to better decision-making and will strengthen public confidence in regional government.

His motion, however, met early resistance from some directors, and the board eventually referred the matter to its governance committee for further study.

“One of things that new people here are going to realize is that every action you take has got consequences,” said Metchosin Mayor John Ranns. “And something like this really needs to be considered at length for the consequences.” Ranns said he has no trouble being held accountable for how he votes. But he said an online vote-tracker would fail to capture the “nuanced” voting and debate that takes place.

“If it just shows up as you voted this way or that way, without being able to hear that nuance, without being able to hear the rationale of why you voted, it can lead to any manner of interpretation,” he said.

“We’re all victims now of social media as representatives. So I can see quite feasibly being accused of being a racist or a fascist or whatever the flavor of the day is, based on … something that you voted on, if the person didn’t understand why you voted.”

Ranns said it would be better to spend money on a “more easily accessible video record” of meetings, so people can see the debate as well as the final vote.

Central Saanich Mayor Ryan Windsor also urged further study.

“Some elements I could support, but I’d rather not, on inaugural day, decide, ‘Yes, I’m going to support all of this carte blanche.’ ”

Bartlett of the Grumpy Taxpayer$ took no issue with the board’s decision to refer the matter to committee, calling it a “prudent” and important first step toward reform.

He said improving governance and transparency is the top issue for his organization. “Everything else follows as a result of that,” he said. “It makes for better decisions, I think; a more involved public; better allocation of resources. Everybody wins.”

In other CRD news, Saanich Coun. Colin Plant was elected chairperson of the board, defeating Windsor and View Royal Mayor David Screech. Langford Coun. Denise Blackwell will serve as vice-chair.

Blackwell will chair the Capital Regional Hospital District board as well.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps will chair the Capital Region Housing Corporation, which develops and manages affordable housing.

lkines@timescolonist.com