Town can build trust by increasing transparency

This week's editorial looks at transparency within the Town of Ponoka.

In the last two years of reporting on this new group of elected Ponoka town councillors I have seen them take steps to become more open and transparent.

After a few months in office, council opened up Committee of the Whole meetings to the public, something that hadn’t been done for many years by previous councils. Residents were also given a voice during public meetings by being allowed to speak for two minutes in a public forum.

Mayor Rick Bonnett recently stated in an interview that council has become more transparent and he is right to a degree. These are important steps in garnering trust with residents. I have also seen the strength of each of these councillors and submit that if they are unified as a council they can accomplish the goals they set out to achieve.

There has been a difference in the modus operandi of town administration that appears at odds with council’s intention to be more transparent.

I can’t say when it started but there has been a general reluctance on the part of administration to make public reports, well, public. A more obvious example of that was when the town received a report on the state of affairs of its playgrounds.

A request by Ponoka News to see the report has been turned down with staff stating it is a “working document.”

To be clear, staff cannot immediately respond to requests for information without following some process.

Administration is balancing many different jobs such as training new staff, dealing with aging infrastructure while also working on community-beneficial initiatives such as the Nominate Your Neighbour campaign and being a member of the Communities in Bloom program.

Town staff must be praised for their efforts to keep these plans up and running. It is one of the parts of Ponoka that makes living in this community so enjoyable.

However, for reasons known only to administration, a simple report on the playgrounds in town is something that cannot be divulged.

What administration may not realize is keeping this document from taxpayers’ eyes sets off warning bells. It gives the appearance that there is something to hide. While this may not actually be the case, the argument is moot because for most people, perception is reality.

Now when an important document such as the state of the Town of Ponoka’s administrative building is prepared and administration delays its release, the mistrust towards Town Hall increases. It has been over a month since town planners received that report.

Most residents are fully aware that the building is reaching the limit of its life and council’s recent decision to move staff to a temporary location because of unsafe working conditions gives some indication of the health and safety environment of the building.

A temporary wall in the administrative building blocks off the basement and a vague poster apologizes for having no public washrooms. This is all to show that yes, something is wrong with Town Hall, but residents have not been privy to the contents of the report although they probably wouldn’t be surprised with its contents.

Another issue that potentially arises from withholding information, something that administration may not realize, is it tends to create an environment of secrecy. Those who do see the document express how bad things are but this leaves the vast majority of residents without a full understanding of what is happening.

By releasing the report, administration is in a position to guide people and respond to questions to help them understand the true state of affairs of the building. This applies to any report that residents’ taxes have paid for.

Another report on the Ponoka Fire Department was mentioned by administration and was presented to Ponoka County councillors during an informal barbecue/meeting recently.

Requests to see the document were declined by town staff with administration stating, “It’s a working document.”

Ponoka News was told that the report states equipment is in need of replacement. If that is the case then let residents see the full extent of the need.

Is there really something in these reports that administration doesn’t want residents to see? There is no way to determine that unless they are released to the public. Residents should be allowed to make a conclusion based on the facts, not from hints and pieces of information.

Trust in administration and council will continue to wane the more these documents are withheld. Releasing them does two things: it shows residents the direction of administration and creates an actual environment of transparency.

The point is that residents, the ones who are paying for the infrastructure, reports and staff salaries, must be included in the process; it goes a long way in building an environment of trust.

These reports cannot be so confidential in nature that we would have to seek them out on Wikileaks.org — a website that publishes government documents.

Rather than keep them locked away, council and administration will hopefully see the right of things and bring these documents to light. It’s in everyone’s best interests.