Council Eliminates Meeting Minutes

Peace and Environment News, May–June 2011
by Mike Buckthought

“The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.” — Tim Berners-Lee, World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Director and inventor of the World Wide Web.

On April 13, Council voted to eliminate the detailed minutes for standing committee meetings. The detailed minutes will be replaced by audio clips and brief action minutes. These will be uploaded to the city’s website, but many people will now be shut out of important debates at city hall.

What happens if someone can’t listen to audio clips? Text transcripts of the discussions are essential for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Cancelling the detailed minutes will make it difficult for many citizens to be involved in debates of important municipal issues.

When making its decision to eliminate the detailed minutes, Council failed to consider best practices for accessible websites.

Best practices for web design emphasize the importance of providing text alternatives for any non-text content. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 include a number of recommendations to ensure that websites are accessible.

For example, one Guideline states that all websites should include “text alternatives for any non-text content so that it can be changed into other forms people need, such as large print, braille, speech, symbols or simpler language.”

Eliminating the detailed minutes will create a barrier for many people who need text equivalents of audio information.

It’s also worth noting that the detailed minutes were used by many people who wished to search for relevant information, without wasting time listening to hours of discussions. Citizens, councillors and city staff relied on the minutes when researching key Council decisions.

Eliminating the detailed minutes will also create problems for people who do not have access to a high-speed Internet connection. People who cannot afford high-speed Internet access will find it difficult to listen to audio clips.

Responding to concerns about accessibility, Councillor Wilkinson introduced a motion to continue to provide detailed synopsis minutes. Unfortunately her motion was defeated, 7 to 12.

Voting in favour of providing detailed minutes: Councillors Deans, Fleury, Hobbs, Holmes, Monette, Taylor and Wilkinson.

Voting against continuing the detailed minutes: Mayor Watson and Councillors Blais, Chernushenko, Chiarelli, Desroches, El-Chantiry, Harder, Hume, Moffatt, Qadri, Thompson and Tierney.

The minutes included records of important votes. In the future, it remains to be seen if there will be detailed breakdowns of votes on motions. The action minutes might simply say “Carried” — leaving us to guess where councillors stood on a particular issue. The minutes are essential, if we care about transparency and open access to city government.

Cancelling the detailed minutes represents a serious setback for municipal democracy. It is astonishing that a tech-savvy city such as Ottawa would take such a step backwards, ignoring best practices for accessible websites.

The city should continue to provide detailed minutes for standing committee meetings, to ensure that all members of the public can continue to be engaged in discussing important municipal issues.

Mike Buckthought is an Ottawa writer and community activist.

Published in the Peace and Environment News, Volume 26, Number 3 — May–June 2011, page 8.

Peace and Eco Briefs, May–June 2011

Peace and Environment News — Insider, May–June 2011
by Mike Buckthought

Clayoquot Sound Threatened

The rainforests of Clayoquot Sound are once again under threat following a permit issued by the BC government for a logging road on Flores Island. Logging could start by the summer, if the province fails to protect the island’s temperate rainforests. Iisaak Forest Resources received the permit on April 1. In 1999, Iisaak signed an agreement with environmental groups, promising not to log in Clayoquot Sound’s intact rainforests. Now Iisaak is applying for another permit, which would allow it to build a dock at the start of a logging road. Friends of Clayoquot Sound is asking people to write to the BC government. (Friends of Clayoquot Sound, April 4, 2011

Nuclear Phaseout

Opposition to nuclear power has been growing following the explosions and fires at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. On April 9, over 17,000 people joined rallies in Tokyo to voice their opposition to nuclear plants. On March 26, around 200,000 people protested against nuclear power in Germany. German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced the shutdown of seven nuclear plants at least until June. Meanwhile, the Ontario government plans to construct two new nuclear reactors at Darlington. The estimated cost is $33 billion, but the actual expense could be two or three times higher, with the usual cost over-runs. (Kyodo News Agency, April 10, 2011; Der Spiegel, March 17, 2011; BBC, March 26, 2011; Ottawa Citizen, March 18, 2011)

Fallout from Fukushima

One month after the start of Japan’s nuclear crisis, the country’s Nuclear Safety Commission released some information highlighting the severity of the disaster. The commission rated the accident’s severity as level 7 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES), the same level as the Chernobyl disaster. According to its estimates, emissions have totalled 630,000 terabecquerels. Radioactive iodine-131 is contaminating fish and seawater, and levels of 88.5 becquerels per litre have been measured in the ocean 30 kilometres east of the nuclear plant. Trace amounts of radioactive materials have been detected in Ontario and other provinces. (Kyodo News Agency, April 12, 2011; New York Times, April 12, 2011; NHK, April 13, 2011; Globe and Mail, April 12, 2011)

Rights for Nature

Bolivia is passing a law to ensure that the natural world is given the same level of protection as humans. The Law of the Rights of Mother Earth establishes eleven rights for nature, including: the right to life and to exist; the right to clean water and air; and the right to be free from genetic modification. The new law will help communities take action against polluting industries and mining corporations. Bolivia is urging the United Nations to follow its example by taking steps to recognize the Earth as a living being with the same rights as humans. (The Guardian, April 10, 2011; Ottawa Citizen, April 12, 2011)

Arctic Ozone Hole

The atmosphere over the Arctic lost a record amount of ozone during the past winter. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) reports that levels were down by 40 per cent. An ozone hole stretched from the Canadian Arctic to Russia. Ozone-depleting chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons are responsible. The Montreal Protocol phased out the use of chlorofluorocarbons, but it will take decades for the ozone layer to stabilize. With the depletion of the protective ozone layer, ultraviolet radiation increases in intensity. Exposure to ultraviolet light can lead to skin cancer or cataracts. (CBC News, April 5, 2011)

Mike Buckthought writes about environmental and human rights issues.

Published in the Peace and Environment News — Insider, Volume 26, Number 3, May–June 2011, page 6.