Many Old Municipal Documents No Longer Available Online

At the beginning of this year (January 1), legislation passed in 2005 required new standards for accessibility for web sites provided by Ontario municipalities (amongst others). This means that online documents must meet standards that were not previously mandatory.  But Northumberland County and probably the Town of Cobourg have thousands of documents that don’t meet those standards.  Since this is a significant amount of work, the county has taken these documents off-line as has the Town although for a different stated reason.   That means that the public can only access most bylaws or earlier agendas and minutes by emailed request (details below).  The County is asking the Province to change the legislation and the Town is saying that the issue is due to the use of a new data base and it will be OK “in the Spring”.

Legislative requirements

The law is called the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) and covers a wide range of things but for web sites it applies only to content created in 2012 or later and only for large or public sector organizations.  I won’t try to specify all the requirements but here are some:

  • Include alternative text for images (This has been common practice for many years)
  • Provide ability to increase size of text
  • Provide a way to increase contrast
  • Design such that colour blind people can use site
  • Allow access with a keyboard instead of a mouse
  • Format content suitably

Some of these affect the site design but others affect documents available for download and that is the current concern.  The issue is complicated by the fact that both the County and Town have recently switched away from using “Civic Web” and are now using “escribe” software.  This effects Council processes such as the preparation of Council meeting agendas and minutes but also moves the storage of documents to a new host.

Let’s look at the two municipalities separately:

Northumberland County

The County has a statement on their web site that succinctly explains the problem:

Beginning January 1, 2021 all public sector websites and web content posted after January 1, 2012 must meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0 Level AA) as per the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). Due to the large volume of Council documents created prior to January 2021 which require remediation to ensure compliance with provincial legislation, these documents have been removed from our website and are now available upon request. If you require Council agendas, minutes or by-laws from prior to 2021, or a recording from a recent virtual Council or committee meeting, please complete our Document Request Form or contact the County Clerk’s office.

In addition, at a County Council meeting on December 16, a motion was passed to ask the Province to change the law because there are “19,360 documents from the online Council portal, consisting of Council agendas, minutes, reports, by-laws and other documentation, ….(and) it is not currently practical or financially feasible to review and remediate these documents”.  The requested change would require that “only web content posted after January 1, 2021 must meet WCAG 2.0 AA criteria”.  Meanwhile old documents are only available on request.  This of course makes it impossible to search to see which old document you might want.

Town of Cobourg

On 26 October, agendas and minutes for all Cobourg’s Council and Committee meetings switched from Civic-web to escribe.  That has generally been a good thing.  But in addition, the archive of many Council documents went off-line – all By-Laws plus Council agendas and minutes before September 2019 are currently not available online.  There is some information about by-laws provided on the Town’s main site and a comprehensive summary of bylaws at Cobourg Internet here but if you want to search or read the actual bylaws, you are out of luck.  The same applies to Council meeting Agendas and Minutes prior to September 2019.

Cobourg does not mention the AODA requirement – it’s possible that they have a problem just like the County but have not yet addressed it.  A query from a member of the Cobourg Taxpayers Association to Town Clerk Brent Larmer about the missing documents got the response that “it will be spring before they have a new database with the documents”.  Like the County, the missing documents were stored on Civic-Web but perhaps the process of transferring documents from the old Civic-Web host to the new escribe host (or hosting on the Town’s main site cobourg.ca) will add the required AODA features.  Meanwhile, most by-laws, agendas and minutes are not available or only available on request..

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6 Comments
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Bryan
27 February 2021 12:56 pm

It is all well and good to provide access to as many people as possible. However, documents and data that were available before in a non compliant formant should have been “grandfathered” to keep them available, rather than simply shutting down the old systems, thereby providing no access at all.

The law makers clearly did not think this through and it seems evident that there was no public engagement.

MiriamM
27 February 2021 9:29 am

Absolutely amazed this issue, lack of access to public documents, has not had more interest and expressed concern by the public. I may have misunderstood the main point about the legislation and accessibility, but it is the receiving computer which can provide options to enable accessibility. These options have been available for some time now.

Ken Strauss
Reply to  John Draper
28 February 2021 9:06 am

“Alternate text” is certainly one option. However, all modern operating systems include good to excellent text-to-speech features. Web browsers mostly include the ability to render pages with higher than usual contrast, larger text and other accommodations. A larger monitor is a huge benefit to many including me. It all depends on ones particular disability. Eliminating ALL access to EVERYONE seems the ultimate back-arsewards approach to accessibility.

Ignoring the issue of historical public document accessibility the town’s communications such as their latest newsletter is a great example of how to make documents inaccessible for the visually impaired. Why are we still producing such abominations?

Liz
1 February 2021 2:16 pm

Employment Opportunity?
This may create a position for a new graduate that wishes to remain in Cobourg. I recall working in a secretarial position. As computer use grew one of my tasks was to create a manual of templates for managers beginning to use the computer for documents. The firm also desired a standard format. For a database as they are usually governed by fields a person knowledgeable in how a document would display would be necessary.

This process should make information more easy to upload and be easily accessible for interested citizens to be able to rapidly access updates in areas of municipal governance.

As the town grows in these rapidly changing times I expect there will be also changing needs in their hiring, some will eliminate and streamline positions as computers usually do. Changes.

Last edited 6 months ago by Liz
Gerinator
31 January 2021 2:46 pm

The response “it will be spring before they have a new database with the documents” suggests 2 activities: arrival of new database and a database that contains the documents (as prescribed by the Prov). Which made me ask myself – Spring of what year? Given the reduction in Town revenues, having to deal with an interface (old Civic-Web host to the new escribe host) issues and uncertainty about the continuing impacts of Covid, I believe that this overall effort should be delayed especially since these guidelines are pre-Covid.