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Hosted by Zach Jeffries, Saskatoon In Focus explores the issues affecting our community through engaging and informative one-on-one conversations with the key players shaping our city's future. Watch our YouTube channel for new episodes of SIF.

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Accountability Isn’t Sexy, But It Matters

Over the past few months, I have taken the opportunity to watch many Saskatoon City Council meetings in person at City Hall.  Aside from the meetings with passionate debates on issues like the Traffic Bridge or taxi regulations, the council gallery is usually a pretty empty place.  Despite the small number of people who watch these regular meetings in person, I am always pleasantly shocked by the number of people I speak with who faithfully follow these meetings live on Shaw TV Channel 10.

Having residents watching their City Councillors at work, making local decisions, is a good thing.  This begs the question: why is it so difficult in Saskatoon for many people to access City Council meetings?

Today in Saskatoon, if a local resident wants to watch City Council meetings, that person has two options:
  1. Go to City Hall and watch the meetings in person.
  2. Watch the meeting on Shaw TV.  These meetings are broadcast live and are subsequently rebroadcast later.

So, if someone wants to keep connected to local decision making but does not subscribe to Shaw TV or cannot make it to City Hall for the meeting, they are out of luck.  In a city that rightly claims to be connected and educated, this is not good enough.  Especially when one considers that City Council has very few recorded votes, it is clear that council meetings need to be broadcast and archived online.

In the past six months, it has become obvious that when residents are given an opportunity to get engaged, they get engaged.  There have been exceptionally well attended open houses on the Traffic Bridge, hydro project at the weir, the future of recycling, and many other neighbourhood issues.  I have no doubt that if council meetings were broadcast and archived online that Saskatonians would tune in.

Broadcasting council meetings online is about accessibility and accountability, plain and simple.

In my experience, I know that online streaming is not overly expensive or difficult and that many cities across Canada, including Halifax and Vancouver, already have this technology in place.  In the 2010 budget, City Council even allocated $15,000 toward an online streaming project, but to date, no one can curl up with their laptop and popcorn at home to watch these meetings.  I have it on good authority that despite the budget allocation from a year ago, we still cannot expect this to be done anytime soon.

I fully understand that with any project, there can be unexpected issues that get in the way of timely progress.  Without speculating about the possible holdups, the fact remains that this tool for public accountability has not been a priority of council as a whole.  City Administration is made up of some great professionals who respect the will of their elected bosses and they should not be blamed for the hold up.  When it comes to online meetings, there has not been much political will or pressure to speak of.

I know that this issue is not as sexy as a new bridge or swimming pool, but it does matter and it deserves attention.  In order to emerge from the 1980s, Councillors need to do the necessary follow up to have meetings broadcast and archived online as quickly as possible.  Any less is a disservice to the notion of accountability and to the citizens of Saskatoon.

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