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Newmarket Discovers Transparency

Today (Monday 30 November) “transparency” is the word on everyone’s lips.

The Town’s Committee of the Whole gives us an afternoon of free entertainment and revelation. Our councillors are discussing whether they will allow themselves to be lobbied – collectively or in private – by businesses vying for the lucrative 10 year waste collection contract for the so-called Northern Six Municipalities, of which Newmarket is a leading player.

Specifically, they must decide if they are comfortable meeting prospective contractors and entering the details in a “lobbyist register”. They all fear contamination and want to keep the bidders at arm’s length.

John Taylor doesn’t like the idea of one-to-one meetings with any of the bidders, local or otherwise. “We don’t want to be lobbied as individuals!” He wants the option with the most transparency, arguing the staff recommendations should be referred back.

Dave Kerwin, the Town’s most skilled and accomplished flatterer, seconds Taylor’s motion. He says: “I want to be as transparent as possible.”

Tom Vegh and Joe Sponga line up in the queue to demand complete openness and transparency.

Now the Mayor tells us he doesn’t want to be lobbied either. Perish the thought!

Tony Van Bynen is a man for rules and procedures, never impulsive. He is measured and calculating and guided by staff, drawing up a balance sheet of pros and cons before deciding his position on anything. In this way he insulates himself from events that go pear-shaped.

“It is out of an abundance of caution and a desire for transparency that I’ll be supporting the Regional Councillor’s motion.”

I am not the only one smiling.

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Glenway postscript

Ward 7 councillor Christina Bisanz is plowing a lonely furrow, returning to Glenway and the so-called action plan prepared by staff (agenda item 7). All the other councillors want to get shot of Glenway. It is like a bad dream that keeps recurring.

Christina Bisanz has that rare talent of being able to criticize without it sounding like criticism. She says there are elements missing in the action plan as if the staff inadvertently mislaid them, rather than staff consciously deciding what to include from the Lessons Learned report and what to throw overboard. Some good points from the facilitator were apparently “overlooked”.

Gently, she wonders aloud how we can be more aggressive in defending the Official Plan, telling her colleagues they should have the tools to hand to do that. We shouldn’t leave our destiny in the hands of a third party. (This can be decoded but I won’t bother. Those who have been following the Glenway saga know what it all means.)

She agrees with the emphasis on public consultation (who doesn’t) but wonders how discussions in closed session can inform the debate outside. In a novel suggestion she proposes a context report which doesn’t blow a hole in any necessary confidentiality but allows people to understand how decisions are made.

She doesn’t want the action plan applied on a case-by-case basis as recommended. I guess she wants more of a whole system approach.

John Taylor wants to know what has happened to the promised Provincial review of the OMB. No-one seems to know. Not even Rick Nethery who is paid handsomely to answer such questions. They are going to find out.

The Mayor, who promised OMB reform would be the centerpiece of his third term, could start the ball rolling by setting out in a special report to Council his own views on OMB reform. This could then be forwarded to the Province.

Town Clerk, Andrew Brouwer, tells us he is looking at closed meetings and in-camera protocol and councillors can expect a report (hopefully early) in 2016.

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Town’s new website dumps content for accessibility

The Province’s Open Data Directive comes into force on 1 April 2016. According to the press release “it makes data open by default” unless it is exempt for specified reasons.

How unfortunate then that Newmarket has been systematically removing from its website a huge amount of significant material on planning and development that was previously available to the public at the click of a mouse.

The Director of Planning, Rick Nethery, told the Committee of the Whole yesterday that the Town’s website had been redesigned to comply with the requirements of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. (Not strictly accurate.) We learn that planning files now purged from the website are available from the Planning Department on request. This is all being done in the name of greater accessibility.

Bringing into effect the 2005 Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act is proceeding at a regal pace and lots of people in Ontario will have to wait until 1 January 2021 before the Act requires all municipalities to make all websites and web content accessible. But Newmarket is ahead of the pack. We are meeting that deadline now by dumping content.

The Province recognises it may not be possible for  municipalities and other  organizations to meet WCAG 2.0 requirements (an internationally accepted standard for web accessibility). The website explains:

“For example, it may be impossible to make some online maps and complex diagrams accessible to people with visual disabilities. In such cases you may still post the content, but you must provide it in an accessible format upon request.”

Here in Newmarket, I am told the planning studies that populated the Town’s clunky old website have been removed because all documents posted on new or substantially revised and updated websites must be fully accessible to a screen reader. Converting and re-formatting the files, dense with plans and drawings, would, apparently, be a labour of Hercules, costly in staff time and in dollars. I learn that traffic to the planning pages is also very low. They are among the least visited pages of the Town’s website.

This is all very unfortunate. Planning is one of those areas requiring special vigilance. We need to keep a beady eye on development in Newmarket where Council decisions can turn people into millionaires overnight.  There is also the risk that the Council makes a terrible planning blunder.

As it is, the Town’s bright and breezy new website tells us:

“The Town of Newmarket website meets the current standards outlined in the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). The website conforms with the WCAG 2.0 Level AA guidelines (current standards are Level A).”

Translated, this means Newmarket is commendably years ahead of where we need to be, doing now what the Town would be obliged to do by law by 2021.

But, as I say, lots of useful material is no longer on-line.

We can ask for it, though.

If we only know where to look.

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