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Councillor - Town of Blue Mountains

Closed Municipal Meetings – Are they Necessary or Not?

This article is written as a follow-up to Paul Mitchell’s Letter to the Editor in the February, 2012 Newsletter. Paul clearly pointed out that there were 26 closed meetings in 2011 – far too many secret meetings.

Well, 2012 has started out with more secrets – 9 Council meetings (as of April 11) and 5 had closed-sessions.

All municipal Councils or local boards are required to hold meetings that are open to the public, subject to some exemptions. A meeting may be closed for the following reasons:

For the security of the property of the municipality or local board; personal matters about an identifiable individual, including municipal or local board employees; a proposed or pending acquisition or disposition of land by the municipality or local board; labour relations or employee negotiations; litigation or potential litigation, including matters before administrative tribunals, affecting the municipality or local board; advise that is subject to solicitor-client privilege, including communications necessary for that purpose; a matter in respect of which a council, board, committee or other body may hold a closed meeting under another Act.

For the purpose of educating or training the members, so long as no member discusses or otherwise deals with any matter during the closed meeting in a way that materially advances the business or decision-making of the council, local board or committee.

If the subject matter relates to the consideration of a request under the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, if the council, board, commission or other body is the head of an institution for the purposes of that Act.
In 2011, 65% of the closed meetings were considered staff-related (personal matters about an identifiable individual), while 3 of the 5 closed meetings in 2012 pertained to “an identifiable individual” and 2 involved pending acquisitions. No details of the subject matter were given.

Before a closed meeting may be held, a council, local board or committee must pass a resolution, at a public meeting, indicating the fact of holding a closed meeting and the general nature of the matter(s) to be dealt with. The resolution should give as much detail as is reasonable without disclosing information that would be detrimental to the municipality or the interests of others discussed at the closed meeting. This is an issue of transparency. Remember, closed meetings are the exception to holding all meetings in public and the reasons in the resolution must be clear and all inclusive. In my opinion, this Council fails to provide sufficient detail regarding the general nature of subject matter in comparison to other municipalities like Collingwood.

As with public meetings, minutes are required of all meetings of council, local boards and committees of both. These minutes cannot be taken by a member of the council. The Municipal Act requires that minutes of meetings, open and closed, be taken by the clerk, or designate, in the case of a meeting of council and by the appropriate staff person in the case of a local board or committee, presumably trained by the clerk.

We don’t know if minutes are being taken at our closed sessions because there is no indication that they are. In my opinion any closed session should be shown as a separate meeting and the minutes should always be approved separately at the next meeting of Council. Then we know that they exist and then there would be some sense of transparency.

Any person or corporation may ask for an investigation relating to a closed meeting. If a municipality has appointed an investigator, he or she will investigate complaints about closed meetings. If the municipality has not appointed an investigator, the Ontario Ombudsman may investigate. The investigation provisions apply to meetings held on or after January 1st, 2008. The investigative powers set out in the Ombudsman Act – including the power to issue summonses, inspect premises and compel municipal officials and staff to provide information and documents – apply to investigations of closed meeting complaints.

Interestingly, the Town’s CAO, Troy Speck, has advised our Association that if we “feel any matter on a closed meeting agenda is there inappropriately” then we can call the Town’s closed meeting investigator, Jason Hagan (416-971-9856 Ext. 320), at LAS Local Authority Services in Toronto. Of course that’s quite a statement by our CAO when he knows that no one can publicly discuss what happened behind closed doors, especially if they are facing some sort of censure.

In summary, both members of council and staff need to be asking regularly whether a closed meeting is necessary or not. The closed meeting is the exception; the public meeting is the rule. Municipal councils are elected and ultimately responsible to their electorate for the decisions they make and the actions they take.
Having said all that, “Do you trust that the Council of the Blue Mountains is following the spirit of the law with respect to closed-door meetings?” This should make for an interesting question at the next municipal election (2014). We already know where this Mayor and Council stand.