City scrubs public web access to council agendas, minutes prior to 2017

Cornwall Coun. Justin Towndale takes part in a water and sewer budget meeting on Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018. Towndale is surprised the city removed public web access to council business records prior to 2017 and says he will introduce a motion 'soon' to have those records reinstated on the revamped municipal website. (Newswatch Group/Bill Kingston)

CORNWALL – In what could be seen as a setback on corporate transparency, the City of Cornwall’s recent website revamp also saw the corporation scrub council agendas and minutes prior to 2017.

That means people looking for reports from council, how councillors voted in recorded votes on certain topics and public petitions to council are not readily available on the internet. Ratepayers will have to know what they’re looking for and make a request through the city clerk’s department. Elected officials still have internal access to all the historical data.

Prior to the website change, agendas and minutes were available back to 2008.

In an interview with Cornwall Newswatch, Coun. Justin Towndale said he was a little surprised at the omission. “If they were available before, to me they should be available again. The main idea behind the new website was that it be easier to use and be more accessible. I think by removing access to public information you remove some of that accessibility at the same time, which is unfortunate.”

“We were informed there wouldn’t be any loss of any sort of service. To me, that is a loss of service. That’s a reduction in service we’re providing.”

During the last term of council, Towndale championed a recorded attendance system for council and committees of council. Now, people will only have half the picture because they can find out who attended meetings but, prior to 2017, they won’t know what business happened at those meetings.

“I have access but that’s not fair to everyone else,” Towndale said. “I think the information should be readily accessible going beyond our term but as far as we can go. We’re in a year where we’re taking about Open Data a lot across the world. We’re in an era where information is readily accessible at our fingertips and by not having that information you’re taking that away a little bit.”

Towndale believes it will add extra workload on the clerk’s department.

“If you end up looking for something, as a member of the media,” he told Cornwall Newswatch, “then the other media are looking for it. Then members of the public are looking for it. How many requests are they going to get? How long is it going to take to go get that information, retrieve it and send it out? If it was just available online, someone can look it up themselves. Once it’s uploaded, it’s there. There’s no extra cost to maintain it and accessible at any given time,” the councillor said.

While there are some growing pains, Towndale is pleased with the new city website and thinks it’s acceptable.

The cutoff point eliminates all records from half of the term of the last council. “There are so many of us that are back around the council table and a lot of that is fresh information regardless of how many years ago it is,” he said.

Towndale plans to put a motion “soon” before council to restore access to agendas and minutes “as far back as we have the electronic agendas.”

Towndale doesn’t want to rush the issue because he believes it could be a good project for a summer student and he doesn’t want the city doing the work twice because its transitioning from Lotus (IBM) Notes to Microsoft Office 365.

“I would like to see that fixed. I’m a proponent for having accessible information, try to encourage transparency as much possible and that falls right into that. We should be providing more information than too little. It’s always better to provide more than less.”

Cornwall is not the first municipality to scrub data during a website refresh. In South Dundas, the municipality removed public access to provincially-mandated reports on election expenses for council candidates during the 2014 municipal election.