Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer recently announced on the front steps of City Hall that Red Deer will get a drug treatment court. If the provincial cabinet minister can hold press conferences in public, how come local officials can’t, David Marsden wonders. Photo by PAUL COWLEY/Advocate staff

David Marsden: Conduct the public’s business in public

We’ve become accustomed to calling people who do their jobs heroes.

We have, for instance, the police and firefighters, who shut the doors of their offices to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19.

They naturally wanted to minimize contact with the public to ensure they are able to respond to an emergency. We’re no good without them.

Then, of course, we’ve got the temporary heroes: the hard-working people who stack the shelves at our grocery stores and perform other essential tasks to keep food on our tables.

These are people who are unable to distance themselves from their customers.

Many grocery store employees were granted $2 an hour extra in compensation for their labour for a brief time. Bank employees in Canada, meanwhile, were awarded an additional $50 a shift. Now we know where our priorities rest as a society.

We can’t control how private employers choose to treat their workers, but we should have expectations of our public officials, especially now that people are being encouraged to return to work and resume activities to the greatest extent possible.

Red Deer College president Peter Nunodo, for example, graced the media with a news conference Monday. No, not in person. It was done online.

Why would such a rare gathering not be held in public?

Inside gatherings are now permitted to include 50 people under the provincial government’s relaunch strategy. Up to 100 people can meet outdoors.

Surely, such a threshold should be sufficient to permit a proper in-person press conference, even if the college felt it necessary to dictate that participants wear masks and apply hand sanitizer.

If modest funerals and weddings can safely be held, there’s no reason our college president and a few of his advisers can’t meet at a safe distance from a handful of reporters.

Our MLAs have been meeting in the legislature in reduced numbers to ensure Albertans’ diverse views are heard.

Heck, Attorney General Doug Schweitzer recently announced the creation of a special drug court on the steps of Red Deer City Hall, with our mayor and a provincial court judge standing a safe distance away.

The same expectation of accountability applies to city council. It also met Monday, with councillors sat comfy in their homes and conducting the public’s business remotely.

Why can’t they be allowed to work like the rest of us: getting on with everyday tasks while respecting social distancing and other precautions?

Yes, city council is observing provincial guidelines when it eschews in-person sessions, but presumably our civic politicians don’t have to meet in council chambers.

In fact, it’s probably previous politicians themselves who decided they needed to conduct their deliberations in a panelled room. It assuredly wasn’t ratepayers who made such a request.

Councillors could choose any number of city-owned inside venues where they could carry out Red Deer residents’ affairs in accessible fashion.

The COVID-19 danger has not passed; far from it. But as Alberta attempts to restart its economy, it is important that public institutions model best practices. That includes, of course, following all the precautions public health officials such as Dr. Deena Hinshaw have instilled in us since awareness of the pandemic surfaced in March.

Leadership also includes conducting the public’s business in public.

The sight of college presidents talking to the public’s representatives in real life sends a potent message that people in positions of trust are at the helm and moving forward.

Observing city councillors going about our business in the flesh signals to taxpayers that elected officials are accountable and on the job, even while well-reasoned health restrictions persist.

The time for proper accountability has come. Our local officials should be pressing for it, and delivering it.

David Marsden is managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

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