It comes down to this: it is important to know who is influencing council.
For a number of years, the Municipality of North Cowichan has redacted from publicly available materials, such as council agendas, the names of people, and other identifying information such as addresses, of those who send in correspondence. The claim was that it preserved the privacy of people wanting to express their views to the municipality.
But should that information be private? People write to the municipality, often in the effort to effect change. Presumably, the changes they are lobbying for will benefit them in some way. Don’t the rest of us deserve to know who is trying to get council to make changes? We don’t think that revealing someone’s address or other contact information is necessary, though perhaps the adoption of a policy similar to the newspaper’s when we print letters to the editor would be in order, to whit, we don’t print street or postal addresses, but do include the town someone is from. This way, we know whether influence is being exerted from out of town, so to speak.
It’s the same reason that the newspaper does not, as a matter of policy, print unsigned letters, except in unusual circumstances where someone would be put at great risk, and the subject matter is of equally great public relevance. If you have an opinion, you should be willing to stand behind it. We don’t want people just to lob bombs from behind a curtain. Social media already allows far to much of that as it is.
Recently, the subject came to a head when someone wrote council to ask that a survey the municipality was conducting be extended. Council decided to go ahead with that request. There is a direct line between that correspondence and action taken by council that effects the entire municipality (though in a small way). We should know whose idea that was.
Council is looking to change their policy due to someone sending in a complaint about it. Ironically, their name, too, is redacted from the public record.
Staff recommended that names be made public unless the sender asks otherwise. We disagree. We think people need to have an exceptional reason to want to be anonymous. And council agreed, deciding at their meeting last week to make names public once again.
Transparency isn’t just important at municipal hall. It’s important within our communities as a whole. Part of that is knowing who is asking for or advocating for what.