Every four years, as the municipal election gets closer and candidates try to impress on the voters their fresh ideas, new approaches and vision for the future of the community, one word seems to get used repeatedly. Transparency. Yes, that’s the big new idea that gets trotted out every time: we’re going to be more transparent. We’re going to consult the residents and we’re going to communicate more. Our procedures will be more open and (yes, again) transparent. You can trust me on this.
Of course, very little, if anything changes after the votes are counted. The procedures of our municipal council have not changed in a very long time. In fact, the last major change in procedure came when various committees were abolished and the Committee of the Whole was brought in instead. This meant that fewer residents were involved in decision- and policy-making, and Council were left to do that themselves.
One of the most obvious examples of the lack of transparency that afflicts councils is the closed meeting, when council get to shut the door on outsiders (that’s you and me) and discuss issues too sensitive for public eyes. Of course, there are subjects that need to be discussed privately, such as personnel issues, confidential matters that might negatively affect council business, etc., but these should be rare. In fact, the Ontario Government has just expanded the number of issues on which the doors are closed on the public.
In the “Modernizing Ontario’s Municipal Legislation Act, 2017″, four new categories of closed meetings have been introduced, for example, to discuss confidential information supplied by another government body, a “trade secret,” or certain types of financial information. Both the Ombudsman and the Information and Privacy Commissioner, among others, were opposed to this extension, believing that it decreased the level of transparency in local government and would increase the level of abuse of closed meeting procedures the Ombudsman already had to deal with.
In 2016, the Ombudsman received 76 complaints about closed meetings in Ontario, and 22 procedural violations found, 18 meetings found illegal, 43% of those investigated. There was a wide range of problems associated with closed meeting procedures, but it seems that most stemmed from an ignorance on the part of councils of what exactly constituted valid reasons for excluding the public from discussions. Closed meetings would start by addressing valid issues, and then move on to others that should have been debated in public.
The principle is stated clearly by the Ombudsman in his latest Report: “Closed meeting investigations centre on requirements in the Municipal Act, 2001 that say all meetings of municipal councils, local boards or committees must be open to the public, unless they meet certain narrow criteria. The exceptions to the open meeting requirements are set out in s. 239 of the Act, but most are discretionary; they involve such topics as personal matters about an identifiable individual, acquisition or disposition of land, labour relations or litigation. The Ombudsman recommends that municipalities keep meetings open to the public wherever possible.”
Behind the provision of closed meetings is the assumption that they would not be abused by using them to discuss matters that could just as properly be brought forward in open session. The public have to be informed in advance that a closed meeting will be taking place, and what the subject matter of that meeting will be. This applies, not only to council meetings, but also to local boards, which must also, like councils, maintain a detailed record of what takes place in the closed sessions.
Transparency is a thing that is not always attractive to politicians, no matter what they say during elections. Rather than face criticism or questioning by residents, they can retreat into their bubble. No complaints have ever been made to the Ombudsman from North Grenville. So far, so secret. Such meetings can be dangerous and misleading, unless the public is informed of the subject and reason for closing the doors against them. They can be misrepresented. A recent flyer delivered to homes in the community by the Citizens Against the ED-19 Dump claimed that the Mayors of the United Counties had been “secretly negotiating the sale” of Council property. Rather odd, considering that a number of articles discussing these negotiations have been published in this paper over the past year. But closed meetings can lead to speculation – about Kemptville College, Kemptville Meadows, recently-removed municipal employees, and a host of other things. Silence may be golden, but it would be nice if we, as citizens, got to the point where we can feel informed and not kept in the dark on these things. Watch for “transparency” to raise its head over the coming pre-election months.