Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Closed vs. Open Meetings

At our May 6 Council meeting, we received a letter from the Office of the Ombudsman about how we handled a “closed” portion of our Council meeting on March 4.

Except for some very limited and well prescribed situations, all of Council’s and Committee’s business must be done in public and in the open.

We publish our agenda and our meeting minutes on our website for each meeting. Over the last year, we have taken additional steps to be open and transparent by publishing videos of our meetings on our website.

But, occasionally, portions of Council’s meetings need to be closed to the public; we call this “in camera” – which in Latin means “in private.”

Generally speaking, the Ontario Municipal Act allows for Councillors to meet “in camera” for three things:  land, legal, and labour. That means, when we discuss the potential purchase or sale of a specific property, or the hiring of a specific individual, or we receive legal advice, we can hold the discussions in private.

Why does the Province allow this practice?

Because those closed session discussions protect the Town and all our shareholders – you and your neighbours.

If someone was suing (or threatening to sue) the Town over a matter and we discussed that matter openly, it would put our case at risk.

(Sometimes, this legal element spills over into other meetings with individuals who are taking legal action against the Town. We would only agree to such informal meetings if they are “without prejudice” and where we try to find solutions together.)

Or, if the Town was trying to buy a certain property and it became known publicly, the costs of the property could escalate.

Or, if Council discussed hiring a certain person, we would not want that person’s current employer to know they are seeking a job with the Town.

In the case of our March 4 Council meeting, we were discussing the Environmental Protection Bylaw. We heard from a few residents (including a lawyer) about their concerns with the bylaw. Our lawyer was present and Council wanted legal advice regarding some provisions of the bylaw; we moved into an “in camera” session, asked our questions, and received legal advice. Then, we returned to an open discussion and carried on debate.

Someone complained to the Ombudsman, suggesting that we had contravened the Municipal Act.

Following an investigation, the Ombudsman’s office said we followed the provisions of Act and did everything as we should.