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.

Envisioning Democracy for Ottawa

Peace and Environment News, May–June 2007
by Mike Buckthought

In April, Mayor Larry O’Brien announced his plan to transform Ottawa, proclaiming the start of “1,000 days of change.” He called for closed-door meetings, to be held at the Pineview Golf Club. And what would be discussed, at a golf course? The city’s priorities, for the next few years. City councillors were invited, but he forgot to include the public — until there was an outcry.

An exercise in participatory budgeting? Not exactly. When a corporation creates long-range plans, it holds retreats in the country, and executives talk about profits, and increased “efficiency.” Mayor O’Brien has called for a more “business-like” approach. This new corporate approach may include the privatization of public services.

There is another approach. We do not need “corporate visioning exercises,” because we already have a long-range plan, called Ottawa 20/20. It was drafted after much public input, and it describes a new kind of city. Not an uncaring city, obsessed with tax cuts, but a city that is able to re-invent itself.

Ottawa 20/20 addresses the chronic underfunding of the arts: “A creative city must be able to sustain a concentration of artists, creative people, cultural organizations and creative industries.”

The Transportation Master Plan recommends increased support for public transit: “The City’s growth management strategy aims to increase transit’s peak hour share of motorized person-trips to 30 per cent. This is almost twice today’s level, and compares well to many large European cities.”

Ottawa has forgotten about its long-range plans — plans that were approved by City Council. Elsewhere, cities such as Toronto and Vancouver are investing billions of dollars to create new transit lines. Ottawa, by contrast, is going backwards — back to the suburban sprawl of the fifties. The 2007 Budget calls for millions of dollars in road construction, and the Province plans to widen Highway 417.

There used to be money for cycling. Now, this so-called “city with swagger” can’t afford to spend $50,000 to teach children how to cycle safely. It doesn’t care all that much about day cares. The idea of keeping up with inflation was kept out of the debate. Back in March, a proposed 2 per cent funding increase was turned down.

The solution to this mess? We need to return to Ottawa 20/20.

How to get from here to the year 2020? Citizens need to have a say in our city’s budget. It is not something to be left to executives, meeting behind closed doors.

We can learn from the experiences of other cities. Participatory budgets have been used in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and other cities around the world. We can learn from their successes and failures.

Citizens in Montréal’s Plateau-Mont-Royal have started the experiment — adapting the idea of participatory budgets, experimenting and innovating. We need to learn from their experience.

Democracy starts here — not behind the closed doors of a boardroom, but in public spaces illuminated by shared ideas and experiences.

For information about activities planned by Imagine Ottawa and the Ottawa Budget Coalition, visit: Ottawa 20/20 is available online:

Mike Buckthought writes about environmental and social justice issues.

Peace and Environment News, Volume 22, Numbers 4–5, May–June 2007, page 1.