We live in the so-called Information Age, where information is knowledge, is currency, is power.
Our political and other leaders also like to tell us we live in an era of transparency, when it is important that information affecting the lives of the public be readily revealed to “the public.”
And, unfortunately, we also live at a time when misinformation (and often disinformation) are widely spread, often to fill the gaps when the powers that be withhold details or refuse to reveal information on subjects of importance to the public.
Information and transparency don’t always go hand-in-hand.
Which brings us to the environmental “crisis” that the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake has been dealing with for more than three weeks now.
Answers to fundamental questions have not been forthcoming. Like it or not, the public deserves to be informed about what is going on in a large drainage ditch in a rural area just south of Virgil and east of the Niagara District Airport.
The delays in timely answers from the town, Region of Niagara, provincial environment ministry is just not acceptable. A communication fail.
Even members of council are acknowledging that they cannot get straight answers. And it’s been three weeks now.
Is it really an environmental crisis? We don’t know because no one in authority is trusting the public with the answers. It certainly could end up being a financial crisis for the town, costing the treasury $1 million or more. But we’re not sure of that either, because details are not forthcoming.
What happened, what is the pollutant, where did it come from, what did testing find, were crisis management procedures followed, how much has been spent to date …?
On the afternoon of Wednesday, Sept. 7, town chief administrator Marnie Cluckie noted the test results “qualify under the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act legislation and are not documents available to the public.”
But she added that The Lake Report could file a formal freedom of information request to the town to try to obtain the test results. So, it’s not public information but maybe if we jump through the access to information hoops, some of it might become publicly available. Eventually.
Questions abound and answers are few and far between. Plus answers that are offered tend to be carefully crafted attempts at public relations, protecting the image of the municipality and ensuring that the words are “on message.”
This is what it has come to in Niagara-on-the-Lake – and in government and corporate entities everywhere. By all means, embrace professional communication practices. But then communicate openly and clearly.
The public, it seems, is not to be trusted with information about what is happening. And we don’t just mean in this instance. This is the new normal.
Several months ago, the new administration of the town made it clear that only designated employees of the corporation could speak publicly about issues.
Fine, but usually that means sending written questions to the communications folks and waiting hours, sometimes days or more for answers. Occasionally answers never come.
In most cases no information beyond bare-bones answers to direct questions is offered. So, sometimes that leads to a lot of back and forth with more questions – a time-consuming process for both the media and the town staff.
We acknowledge town staff have had their hands full dealing with the crisis since it began and trust they have been doing the best they can to ensure a positive outcome.
But, respectfully, to have so little information available three weeks later – even the $650,000 cost estimate is from Aug. 22 – is just not good enough.
The public, who is probably on the hook for that massive bill, deserves a lot more information and transparency.