Calnan, Mayor. Banging on the “Cone of Silence”
When I was ten my favourite TV show was “Get Smart,” that 1960’s spoof about the adventures of the bumbling super-spy Maxwell Smart. In the series, “Agent 86” fearlessly investigated threats from KAOS, and while he often got himself into trouble, he never failed to save the day, typically thanks to his own dumb luck. When I grew up, I wanted to be Maxwell Smart.
Funny, but it seems like I got my wish.
One of the biggest running jokes on the show was a device called the “Cone of Silence.” Whenever two people wanted to talk about something secret, they would call for the Cone of Silence to keep their discussions private.
The joke was funny because the device never worked. Max and the Chief would sit across from each other, yelling and unable to hear a word, while anyone outside the Cone could talk to them and hear their conversations perfectly.
Eventually, the people inside the Cone of Silence would realize how unproductive their efforts at secrecy were. After a lot of shouting and struggle, they’d lift the Cone and have an open conversation like mature and reasonable people.
I know what its like to be stuck in that Cone of Silence. I know because City officials have put me there. From what they’ve written and said to me its clear they don’t want to talk to me, they don’t want to hear from me, and they definitely want to keep me from asking questions and talking about what’s going on at City Hall.
I’ve been under that Cone for quite a while now. For the last few years, every chance I get, I bang on the sides of it, hoping that someone outside will lift the device and help me talk to these guys. At City Hall there’s a conversation we need to have, decisions we need to make and problems we need to fix and this has to happen out in the open.
But I figure these guys keep using the Cone of Silence on me because they like the veil of secrecy it gives them. It helps them to get on with things without interference from pesky elected officials who ask a lot of questions and want information. It relieves them from the burden of accountability.
People say that “knowledge is power.” That’s true. Controlling access to information is the key to that power. If you control what people know, you control the decisions people make. That’s what’s happening at City Hall, it’s been happening for years now, and I’ve been fighting to stop it. Its that fight that keeps me under the Cone of Silence.
Here’s the latest example. About a month ago, someone told me there was a land deal that happened a few years back under the previous Council. There was something that smelled fishy about that deal, questions were raised about it by the Council of the day.
When I was told about it, I immediately brought what I heard to the attention of senior City officials. Now, thanks to the Cone of Silence and Council’s rules of confidentiality, I can’t tell you what happened next.
I can’t tell you what I told them about the matter, and I can’t tell you what they did with the information. I can’t give you any details about the issue at all, not even the questions I asked or what information I asked for. I can’t tell you what Council considered at our in-camera meeting on June 21st, and I definitely can’t tell you why they voted to close the matter and apologize to a City official on my behalf for even raising the matter in the first place. In fact, I’ve probably told you too much already.
Think about what this means. Suppose you’re an elected official, a member of Council, and someone tells you something is wrong, that maybe a City official even broke the law. The moment you ask for information you get threatened and shut down hard. Instead of looking into it, other City officials ask Council’s permission to consider the matter closed.
The whole matter starts to stink to you like a cover up, but because of Council’s confidentiality rules, you can’t speak about the matter or tell anyone what you think is wrong or what happened. You could go to the police if you had any information for a complaint, but no one’s given you any. In the meantime the original complainant gets scared off.
Even if you wanted information to put the matter to rest in your own mind you would have to file a Freedom of Information request with your own staff at the City Clerks Office. That’s a process that takes months, will cost you maybe hundreds of dollars and will likely go to appeal after appeal in the hopes that you’ll give up trying.
I have to think I’m not alone in seeing something’s wrong with that picture. I can’t believe it represents the kind of community or government we should have, and I can’t believe that anyone wanting to be an elected official can defend that process.
As a citizen, maybe even as someone running for office in this municipal election, you need to realize that City officials can lower this Cone of Silence on you or anyone at any time. They can lower it on any elected official or any member of the public, and if you’ve got a reputation for asking questions people would rather avoid answering, Council might even support them in doing that to you.
So I need your help. The people on the other end of this Cone of Silence can’t and won’t hear me. The question I’m hoping someone outside the Cone of Silence will ask them is “why?”
Why would City officials move to silence me? Why would they stop my requests for information about a land deal with a well-known local developer? If nothing wrong happened, why are they fighting me and holding back information that will clear the whole thing up?
As an elected official I think I have a right to know the truth of the matter and be satisfied with information I have a right to ask for in any case. And as a member of the public I think you have a right to be satisfied that everything is fine and above board in your City and with your property. But someone at City Hall thinks what’s best for you is ignorance. That is the Cone of Silence. That’s how it works.
And make no mistake, it does work… for them. Its a devious and effective means to keep you ignorant and keep them in control. City officials have gone on record about how effective this Cone of Silence is. It’s clear how they use it when they don’t want people to know what’s really going on in this City.
Not that long ago the press reported that, in another land deal, senior City officials discussed withholding information from Kingspan Insulated Panels about possible protests by Six Nations ‘land protectors.’ They didn’t want anything to interrupt the sale of land and joked about how this information would be kept under a “cone of silence.” Now we’re being sued by Kingspan for ten million dollars. Whether our insurance will cover that settlement is a question I’m still waiting to have answered.
I think it’s time to smash this Cone of Silence and clean up a broken process. It’s time to realize how extensive and unproductive our secrecy is, how wasteful and destructive it’s been. It’s time for an open conversation on the risks we face and how the Community’s Corporation should be run.
The costs of the Cone of Silence system are obvious. These costs can be measured in multimillion dollar lawsuits, lost jobs, broken government and a fatally toxic climate at City Hall. The officials responsible for this system should be held accountable for creating and perpetuating this chaos. This October 25th, elected officials like me will certainly will be held accountable for what we tried to do to fix it.
133 Peel Street, Brantford ON