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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Japan trip illustrates transparency is essential

The Columbian
Published: March 28, 2023, 6:03am

The public deserves answers regarding the trip of Vancouver officials to a Sister City in Japan.

Who went on the excursion? Did it cost taxpayers anything? What potential benefits were culled during a weeklong journey to Joyo?

All of these should be answered promptly and completely. Silence and obfuscation only lead to more questions and inflame mistrust between voters and those they elect to run the city.

Joyo is a city of about 80,000 residents in the Kyoto prefecture, and the city of Vancouver website explains: “The Vancouver Rotary and the Joyo Rotary Clubs initiated the idea of starting a sister city relationship. With a lot of hard work and strong support from citizens of both cities, Joyo and Vancouver became official Sister Cities in October 1995. Since that time, Joyo and Vancouver have enjoyed many formal and informal social, cultural and political exchanges such as children’s art exchanges, one-on-one exchanges and a six-month employee exchange between the two cities.”

In 2018, The Columbian reported: “In a geopolitical climate where cross-national partnerships are valued, the city of Vancouver prefers to foster one and only one Sister City partnership: Joyo, Japan.”

At the time, the official in charge of the Sister City program said: “Washington state doesn’t allow you to use public money to support Sister Cities. You can pay for staff time, but all the other things that go along with the Sister City program — hosting people, travel, gifts, all of that kind of stuff — you have to raise private dollars for.”

A Sister City designation can spur economic and cultural benefits. It is perfectly reasonable for Vancouver leaders to visit Joyo to forge relationships and explore commonalities between the two cities. But City Councilor Sarah Fox — who did not participate in this month’s trip — points out the problems with relative silence about the journey.

“When everyone was gone, I had quite a few people walking up to me, asking me about the trip, and I didn’t have answers, and I felt pretty silly,” Fox said. During a council meeting, she said: “When planning was underway for this Japan trip, we never discussed the purpose or need for all seven of us to attend. In fact, there was never a discussion at all.”

Reportedly, Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle, City Manager Eric Holmes and five of the seven city council members made the trip. Councilors Fox and Bart Hansen did not partake. Mayor Pro Tem Ty Stober told The Columbian that 31 people were in the traveling party, including local business leaders, but a full list is not publicly available.

Then there is the question of cost. Stober said the city paid for councilors’ travel costs, and The Columbian’s Carlos Fuentes reports: “In city claim vouchers released earlier this week, travel reimbursements for the four attending council members and the mayor ranged between $527 and $927 — though it is unclear what this money went toward.”

All of this likely adds up to a minor issue. But at a time when governments at all levels are inching toward totalitarian opaqueness, transparency is essential. Effective and responsible government depends upon openness, not a situation in which a city council member is unable to explain what the city government is up to.

Fox added: “My goal isn’t to embarrass the city, but I truly didn’t know the answers.”

City leaders should ponder the meaning of that statement and answer questions that have been raised. Then they should err on the side of transparency.