Few organizations, public or private, are more accessible and open than the City of Kelowna. Council meetings and decisions are open to the public (also recorded and available 24/7), financial records are audited and available to anyone, and legislation ensures transparency governs the way local governments operate.
So, it’s hard to understand David Bond’s concern about local government accountability in his July 1 column in The Daily Courier, “Transparency needed at City Hall.”
It might be due to a lack of understanding about how oversight is conducted in local government, so this is a good opportunity to describe all the mechanisms in place to safeguard public trust.
Bond compares his experience on boards of directors with the way a city government is run and concludes there’s an inadequate flow of information from the city administration to the “directors,” or council members
His argument is captured in this paragraph:
“Just look at how much time council doesn’t spend on examining operational expenditures (including salaries and benefits costs) to look for possible efficiencies. Consider how often it requires evaluations of various activities and projects to determine whether the taxpayers are receiving good value.”
In fact, council participates in important decisions such as salaries and financial management through the audit committee, comprised of council members. This body discusses and debates fundamental corporate matters, provides a great deal of financial oversight and ultimately helps inform council direction and decisions.
As public information posted at kelowna.ca notes: “The Audit Committee reinforces the principle that the administrative function of the City is accountable to the legislative arm of the City, and in turn the legislative arm is accountable to the taxpayers of Kelowna.”
The objective of the audit committee is to make recommendations to council on the:
— audit function of the city;
— disposition of surplus funds;
— human resource issues related to collective agreement bargaining, manage-ment and union-exempt staff policy and the city manager’s annual review and recruitment;
— Any other matter that might impact the efficiency and effectiveness of city operations, or that will significantly impact city assets.
Other forms of staff accountability to council include annual independent financial audits, along with ongoing value for money audits conducted on individual business units at the city, most recently for the Kelowna Community Theatre, Kelowna Memorial Cemetery and fleet services. Regular staff workplan reviews at open council meetings ensure alignment with council priorities and describe progress toward those priorities.
Bond also states:
“There appears to be a groundswell of public opinion that believes the city administration can be improved and made more accountable and transparent.”
In fact, the data suggests something different than this perception about accountability. The most recent citizen survey, released 19 months ago, found 79 per cent of residents say they receive good value for their taxes and 87 per cent are happy with the overall level and quality of services provided by the city.
These results were achieved during a time of significant social challenges in our community and staff are always working to improve services, but these measured results belie a perceived “groundswell” of public opinion to the contrary.
Here are a few additional ways the city administration remains accountable:
— third-party salary reviews for management
— city manager performance review by council
— public report on remuneration for staff earning more than $75,000
— council reporting framework
— corporate performance management program (tracks and reports to council on staff performance toward annual goals)
— Government Finance Officers Association awards (17 consecutive years)
— open data access at kelowna.ca
— freedom of information services
There is also a weekly public forum in which council members can ask staff for more detailed information on any program, project or initiative. Open weekly council meetings are the failsafe way for “directors” to ensure the “executive” provides answers to help make informed decisions on behalf of residents.
Public trust is built on transparency, reporting and fact-based information sharing -- objectives firmly held by senior administration at City Hall.
Doug Gilchrist is the city manager for Kelowna.