A Collingwood councillor is pushing for town staff and council to make more of an effort to stop the spread of misinformation in the correspondence section of council and committee agendas.
Coun. Steve Berman said he’d like to see a way to tackle “false information about numbers and procedures.”
“I hope we are acutely aware of what misinformation is causing all over the place,” stated Berman during a council meeting on Jan. 18. “We have, as council, tried to do things to be ahead of the curve on the climate crisis, on systemic racism, and I think we need to make some sort of an effort to do the same thing here.”
He referenced the actions of Twitter to add flags to its users’ tweets when the information in the tweet was disputed.
In support of his argument, Berman raised questions about two letters included on the Jan. 18 council agenda.
One letter from Collingwood resident Paul Ireland criticized council for what he called “no desire or sense of urgency … to conduct a public meeting regarding the (judicial inquiry report) and the costs.”
Previously, councillors have noted any resident can deliver a deputation up to five minutes long at any council committee meeting without applying in advance to the clerk’s office. Applications in advance of a meeting for what’s called a “deputation with notice,” can get the presenter up to 10 minutes.
“Five minutes set aside for public comment, buried in an unadvertised committee meeting on a staff report would be totally inadequate and is an insult to concerned citizens,” stated Ireland’s letter.
Berman took issue with Ireland’s suggestion of the meetings being unadvertised, and asked the clerk, Sara Almas, if Ireland’s statement was “factually correct.”
Almas said public commenting opportunities are “an advertised component” of any committee meeting and agendas are provided publicly.
She said staff would try to do more to ensure the public is made aware of commenting opportunities.
Coun. Deb Doherty also addressed Ireland’s letter, though more generally.
“There is continued misinformation in the community as to whether there will be a public meeting held in regard to the judicial inquiry and whether the public will have an opportunity to speak,” said Doherty. “I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I’m quite sure that based on the level of public interest, the public will be made well aware of the time when the CAO’s report comes forward and a meeting is held that would entertain comments from the public.”
CAO Sonya Skinner confirmed Doherty was correct and there would be a staff report on the judicial inquiry report back to council by February, and if the full report wasn’t ready, there would be at least an update.
She said based on council’s direction there could be a series of public meetings to follow, or other method of engagement, such as a virtual forum or through the town’s Engage Collingwood website.
“There will definitely be ample opportunity for the public to participate,” added Almas.
Another letter included in the council agenda came from former councillor Tim Fryer referenced the judicial inquiry. In his letter, Fryer stated the recommendations in the final inquiry report included many already implemented (such as a code of conduct for council and staff). He questioned the need for the inquiry “at an inexplicable cost of $10 million on a budget of $1.5 million.”
Berman asked staff if the town had spent $10 million on the inquiry.
“The costs have not been fully compiled,” answered Almas. “I think there were a few items coming in. I understand, at this point, it has not exceeded $8.5 million.”
Skinner said items, such as letters, included in a council agenda are the opinions and recommendations of the writer.
“In this case, we’ve been able to clarify this is not the amount spent to date,” said Skinner.
Berman said he has “no problem with opinions,” but suggested numbers aren’t opinions.
“One plus one equals two,” he said. “We have a permanent record of these letters on our website and it’s not fair to expect people to know there was a debate about some things that were incorrect.”
He said he wanted to see staff explore options for pointing out factual inaccuracies in items submitted to council so they could be flagged in council meeting minutes.
Almas told council she and the CAO had discussed the issue of misinformation more than a month ago and staff are investigating options, which could include a disclaimer on council agendas noting the content in the correspondence is not verified by the town.
“Just because council is receiving it, doesn’t mean you’re approving the accuracy of the information contained therein,” said Almas.
She promised staff would look at more options for council to consider.
Berman reiterated he would like items to be flagged with a note to say the information is disputed.
“Only on specific black-and-white things,” he clarified. “Not because someone doesn’t like the colour of my suit or something… I don’t want to stop anybody from writing anything.”