Putting City Hall on its best behaviour

By Joey Coleman

Live streaming of council meetings is improving city governance in Hamilton. No longer can members of Council engage in disgraceful behaviour without finding themselves on YouTube within minutes.

Hamilton City Council “appears to be getting along more harmoniously than it has in years,” declared the Spectator’s Andrew Dreschel in a recent print column.

Dreschel attributes this to Mayor Bob Bratina’s leadership style. Other than a few flare-ups with Ward 8 Councillor Terry Whitehead and the near fist-a-cuffs back in December during the Confederation Park Pan-Am stadium debate, Mayor Bratina has been able to temper himself at Council during his first six months in office.

However, it is not the Mayor that deserves credit. The cameras in the Council Chamber deserve it.

The first City Council meeting I attended was in 1996. Since then, I’ve attended many meetings and noticed an unmistakable pattern. City Council is always on their best behaviour when the gallery is full. The second the gallery empties with only the usual suspects remaining (the people who rarely miss a meeting), Council’s decorum decreases to their usual antics.

The Pan-Am stadium debate meeting of August 10, 2010, reflected this perfectly. The meeting started late at 10:00 AM, with an overflow crowd of citizens spilling out into the hallways. Council was on its best behaviour. After a brief lunch recess, the gallery emptied and Council’s decorum degraded quickly.

Ironically, Council did not realize that thousands of people were watching the process online in what was likely the most viewed municipal meeting in the city’s history. This was the first time City Council was live streamed over the Internet, and 41,192 people watched the meeting. Many of those watching from home had left the Council Chamber, creating the appearance that no one was watching.

I recall vividly that after 10 hours of debate, a member of Council proposed that a decision be put off until a future day. One person heckled from the gallery and hundreds screamed online. Blackberries went crazy as people flooded their city councillors with emails, and the councillor quickly withdrew his motion.

After the debate, a couple members of Council approached me expressing surprise that so many people were watching. Things changed that day; people were able to monitor their elected representatives from wherever they were with an Internet connection.

Today, every meeting of Council is live-streamed and councillors know that people are watching.

If transparency in proceedings can improve Council – a formidable task – what will open data do for city departments?

Not only is it the right of every citizen to be informed of what their government is doing, it is our responsibility to be part of the governing process by making positive contributions to civic life.

Open data, the release of city information in an accessible, machine processable, non-proprietary, license-free format, will allow citizens to be more engaged.

Hamilton’s open data movement, Open Hamilton, recently completed a project called WardRep (www.wardrep.ca) which allows citizens to find their political representatives by entering their home address. Presently, citizens need to use a PDF map on the city website to learn which Ward they reside in and then look up their representative on another page. With WardRep, all of this can be done in one user-friendly step.

WardRep is open source and, as of the writing of this column, the City is considering replacing its current system with it.

Why is there a pothole on your street that the city doesn’t seem to be fixing? Is the city even aware it exists? Is the city overwhelmed with potholes and crews are working around the clock to fill them across the city? Or is there accuracy to the stereotype of the famous caricature of one guy filling a pothole, three guys supervising, and one guy bringing coffee while they all smoke?

Open data will allow for the city to report which potholes it is aware of, how many it is filling, and for citizens to easily report potholes the city is not aware of.

Simply put, open data will allow citizens to be ambitious together. It could be as simple as reporting a pothole or as complex as creating a new application for the city. No matter your skills, you have the right to be involved. As our city motto states: Together aspire, Together achieve.

JOEY COLEMAN is one of Hamilton’s emerging independent journalists living downtown with his smartphone always in hand–completely funded by his audience and 100 per cent mobile. You can follow him on Twitter, @JoeyColeman or catch up with his work at joeycoleman.ca

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