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Mar 19,2005 - Tri City News


By Kate Trotter The Tri-City News
Mar 19 2005

If accountability means good financial records, Smart Choices gets top marks.
The Smart Communities Program was audited federally and the conclusion was that it was well-managed, and with good financial controls.
But if it means being responsive to the interests of the public, Smart Choices is as layered and complex as the web portal it spawned.
Smart Choices was incorporated as a non-profit society, with its contributors - the cities of Coquitlam and Port Moody, Douglas College and School District 43 - as the members. As a society, it filed financial statements annually, the only formal requirement.
Unlike city councils and school and college boards, its meetings were not publicized; the financials were sparse and internal reports were not released.
Most directors were staff of cities or education institutes. In four years, it had only five directors who do not earn their living from public sources: Bill Brown, a businessman; Rob Shirra, a consultant; Brian McCristall, publisher of The Tri-City News; Bob Moody, publisher of Coquitlam Now; and Pat Cooper, editor of The Now.
Shirra said that because his work is as a technology consultant, when he agreed to join the board, it was to focus on the community aspects rather than the technology. "What I said when I joined the board is that I wanted to be sure that we were spending the public's money wisely," he said. Shirra also co-chaired one of the community advisory groups. "'We were representing the interests of as many groups as possible."
City councillors approved funding requests from Smart Choices but, as Port Moody Coun. Gerry Nuttall noted, most of the discussion was held behind closed doors. "Councillors can speak on the subject as long as it is not an in camera issue," he said.
"Smart Choices is a separate society and, as such, most of the discussions we have are in camera because they involve ongoing negotiations between the two parties," Nuttall said. "I personally believe that, as a councillor, it is my responsibility make available as much information as I can to residents.
"The local newspapers, being the eyes and ears of the community, are the best way to achieve this. Having most of the discussion in camera appears to put a shroud of secrecy over the project and makes the public suspicious. A more open policy would be beneficial," Nuttall said.
Coquitlam Coun. Kent Becker agreed that some of the Smart Choices business should not have been conducted in camera and the public may have understood the project better had there been more public discussion.
"I think we were doing a reasonably good job of putting out what we wanted Smart Choices to do, and there are some beneficial services it can provide, but at what cost?" Becker said. "That was my concern all along: At what cost?"
In January 2004, Becker asked for quarterly reports, which he received, but doesn't recall if they were part of the public agenda package.
Becker knows what information councillors received as non-public documents and what was available to the public.
Asked, whether there has been sufficient public scrutiny, Becker pause for a long time before saying, "In its entirety? No."

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