Last week, local MPP Jim McDonell held a public pre-budget consultation in the riding. Unfortunately we are unable to report what that consultation looked like because the media were not allowed to attend. Reporters were given a 13 minute time slot to ask questions before the meeting started. When the public meeting was to begin, reporters were summarily removed from the meeting with a keystroke When asked why the media were not allowed to attend the public consultation, a spokesperson for McDonell said “The consultations are not open for the media, which has been the general practice in the past and the preferred conditions for the participants.” The problem is, that statement is false.
In past years, when meetings were held in-person, the media were welcome to attend. Past meetings of this type by McDonell held in South Dundas have been attended, and reported on, by reporters from The Leader. McDonell’s actions are disturbing and point to a broader issue.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, governments at all levels have moved to online platforms for meetings. Forced by circumstance, there is a wholesale change that has the potential of making government more accessible to the public. Moving to, or incorporating, online platforms into government operations enables the public to attend when they may not have been able to before. That places a new level of accountability on government.
While there is potential benefit in these changes, there is also peril. Government officials are the gatekeepers of who has access to public meetings online. As the tools make it easy for people to view, it is far too easy to keep some people out. McDonell’s restrictive “public” meeting is one example. A recent Iroquois Waterfront Implementation Committee meeting is another.
The January 28th meeting was held online, but it was not public. It should have been, as all committees of municipal council are open to public attendance. But it wasn’t. When asked why, South Dundas officials ignored the question.
If gatekeepers do not want certain people to know what is going on, online tools make it very easy to snuff out accountability. It is easy to “forget” a link to an online meeting or have “technical difficulties” with a feed. The potential for those who hold the levers – or keys if you will – of power to be unaccountable is great.
It bears restating that public meetings, in-person or online, are just that, public. And the press has the right to attend those meetings just as does any other member of the public. In a free and fair democracy, anything less is unacceptable.