The saga of Opposition MLA Sidney MacEwen’s visit to a Health P.E.I. board meeting illustrates a chronic problem. There is almost no public scrutiny or accountability for a board, which oversees the biggest department in the Prince Edward Island government. Island taxpayers are largely in the dark about how $660 million is spent.
It was a worthwhile meeting for the Opposition MLA and offered a disturbing lesson. If this kind of experience is in store for an elected MLA, just think what awaits an ordinary Islander. The roadblocks would certainly have deterred most others.
Here we have Mr. MacEwen, the opposition health critic, navigating his way through a myriad of red tape, to attend a regular board meeting. After reading about his experiences, most Islanders must be shaking their heads in bewilderment.
It wasn’t as if Mr. MacEwen was asking to see patient files. In matters of policy and issues like doctor shortages that are important to Islanders, there must be better communication on how decisions are made.
The board itself is unsure on public access; its mandate was poorly defined by government. That shouldn't be a surprise since the health minister was confused about Health P.E.I. protocols during the fall sitting of the legislature.
When Mr. MacEwen raised the issue, then-Health Minister Robert Henderson seemed to flip-flop, stating the board meetings were mainly closed-door, in-camera meetings; later clarifying that the public can attend at the board’s discretion.
And it wasn’t like Mr. MacEwen arrived unannounced on some undercover, covert operation. He called ahead and was told he could observe a scheduled, hour-long public portion. When he got to the closed boardroom door and knocked, things started going downhill. The acting CEO told Mr. MacEwen he wasn’t permitted to attend unless he was making a presentation, which requires an application and approval to get on the agenda.
The board huddled behind closed doors wondering what to do. A majority saw a pending public relations disaster if the MLA was denied access; so he was allowed in and found the meeting informative and members engaged and inquisitive on various issues. He was allowed to ask several questions and then he left.
Mr. MacEwen blazed a trail, which should set changes in motion to make meetings more open and the board more accountable. While he was eventually welcomed at the meeting, it took some effort just to find the time and place; there was confusion among staff and board members; and the room was too small to accommodate members of the public.
Health P.E.I. is finally exploring the possibility of making meetings more accessible. It doesn’t matter how many details are in published minutes. The meetings should be advertised and open. The agenda should be released in advance.
There shouldn’t be any need of discretion – meetings should be public as a matter of course, and in-camera sessions held only on very limited, specific issues.
This is the only way to restore public trust in Health P.E.I., its operations and decisions.