Editorial – ‘Democracy dies in darkness’

Jeff Burgar

Is there such a thing as “being a little bit pregnant?”

The answer to that question is quite straightforward. Of course not! Either you are or you are not! Cut and dried! No grey area! Easy-peasy!

So can we apply that thinking to another question? As in, does a so-called “personnel” issue ever cross an invisible line and become a matter of public record?

Let’s be fair to the parties involved. Namely, High Prairie town council and the town chief administrative officer, the CAO, Bill McKennan. The CAO is the boss of Town staff and by agreement between the Town of High Prairie and Big Lakes County, the boss of the local recreation committee and its own staff.

The CAO was questioned at a recent council meeting by a High Prairie businessman who had uncovered thieving. He wanted to know if the recreation staffer, accused of the theft, was fired.

The answer, from the CAO, could have been vague like, “It’s before the courts so I have no comment.” It could have been simply “Yes” or “No” or “Not at this time pending our investigation.” Or even “The person in question is suspended at this time.”

Instead, the answer was it’s a “personnel” matter.

One supposes, between mayor and councillors, there is interest in this. But nobody raised a hand. Possibly they were pre-briefed. Or intended to ask questions in private after the meeting. Possibly.

There is still a haunting question. When, if ever, does a personnel issue become public knowledge?

To illustrate, if a staffer manages to bamboozle a local government out of a couple million dollars, is this a criminal matter? Or is it still a secret “personnel issue?” How about some hire driving a Town truck over a couple of pedestrians and putting them both in hospital? And even if police lay charges, is the mumblings out of local government still “personnel issue?” Or something like the Walkerton, Ontario water treatment plant tragedy? Seven dead, 2,000 ill. “Personnel issue” still in some government circles so questions will go unanswered?

We are joking, of course. At some point in time, the lid gets totally blown off the boiling pot. The question that so far no councillor has asked, in public anyway, is what exactly is that point? And to go even further on that, who decides that point? The CAO? The councillors of the day, or their majority? Town lawyers, who, of course, are going to tell them all to keep their mouths shut?

Take this statement from the new vice-president of finance and administration at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont.. Laurentian University, after years of mismanagement and incompetence from senior staff and board members alike, finally declared bankruptcy in 2022. Sylvia Lafontaine is one of many new replacement hires after the $300 million debacle, Canada’s largest institution bankruptcy.

“Transparency and accountability,” she says. “Transparency is key. Transparency brings accountability. Everybody is better off when we know where we stand.”

Agreed!

But all too often, flimsy excuses are used to keep the public in the dark.

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