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LETTER: Citizens see red over idea of fee for recording of council meeting

Concerned Citizens of Ramara upset about potential of fee; 'Only offering audio is not providing good service or transparency'

OrilliaMatters received the following letter from Mike Douglas and Ann Bourgeois, from Concerned Citizens of Ramara, about the municipality's consideration of charging residents for audio recordings of council meetings.
Ramara Township Council is considering a very disappointing course of action.

At the Ramara Township committee of the whole (COW) council meeting on Monday, May 6, the agenda contained a report regarding amendments to the fees and charges bylaw.

The objectionable addition to this bylaw is as follows:
"Over the past year or so, we have received a number of requests for audio recordings for meetings and there is nothing in our bylaw to authorize charging a fee for this service. We are recommending a $5 fee for each meeting recording. The requester must provide their own memory stick."

During the council discussions that took place regarding this charge for council meeting audio recordings, various council members were quick to justify a fee, varying from the suggested $5 fee to $20 and the highest suggestion of $50 came from the Ramara Township Mayor Basil Clarke.

This information can be verified by referring to the audio recording of the Monday, May 6 COW council meeting for a fee to Ramara Township of $5.

The COW decision does not come into effect until it is ratified – it is on the council agenda for ratificaiton Monday, May 13

The charging for access to recordings of council meetings should not be tolerated. In this day and age, this is a way for councils to keep residents updated on what they're up to.

It is preferable to see residents at council meetings, however there are always extenuating circumstances that must be adequately addressed such as people with hearing impairments, physical disabilities limiting travel or eliminating the need for travelling distances in bad weather.

One can also argue that it's environmentally preferable not to have residents drive to attend municipal council meetings. There is, of course, the obvious opportunity to have instantly recorded information of what has transpired during council proceedings that is also archivable.

Councils that live-stream are councils that are comfortable with their decision-making process and willing to explain what they have done and why.

Councils that throw up barriers to citizens getting information about what their elected officials are doing are sending a message that they have something to hide, and that they have little respect for the citizens.

Openness, accountability, and honesty define transparency.

In a free society, transparency is government's obligation to share information with citizens. It is at the heart of how citizens hold their public officials accountable.

Gaining access to meeting information is one way of allowing citizens a way of seeing council, their representatives in action.

Council meetings must be open to the public. They engage a wide audience and provide information on what is going on in the community. Public meetings are important, as they are a way to discuss issues, provide a way for people to share their concerns, hear other points of view and identify areas of conflict.

When done well, they develop community, provide a common vision, make the municipality a place where people want to live, work and play.

There are many reasons a person may want to listen to an audio recording.

Some work during the time that the meetings take place, or they have some other obligations that don't allow them to attend in person, or simply, they do not have transportation to get them to the meetings.

Perhaps more people would become more involved in their community if they had the opportunity to freely access the information.

The majority of municipalities in Ontario do not charge a fee for audio recordings. In fact, most offer live streaming via Rogers and YouTube access to council meetings at no cost.

The question is, why does Ramara Township want to charge the public a fee for audio recordings? This is not a fax, this is not a photocopy of a document. This is information that should be readily available to the taxpayer, who is already paying the municipality for the services they receive.

The audio recordings are an avenue of equal access for the public and also have the potential of moderating and emphasizing accountability on the part of the council members; this is all good.

Although the time required depends on the overall content of the council meeting the staff time to disseminate and upload to the Ramara Township website should be approximately 15 to 20 minutes per council meeting, if that.

Almost every council in Simcoe County has live stream of their meetings (See graphic). Only offering audio is not providing good service or transparency.

Mike Douglas & Anna Bourgeois
For the Concerned Citizens of Ramara