Ontario Ombudsman, Paul Dubé, is concerned about the way in which closed, or in camera meetings of municipal councils are being misused across the Province. Closed meetings are designed to be used when a council is discussing matters requiring discretion and confidentiality, such as personnel issues, decisions over offering tenders for contracts, etc. On January 1, the number of issues that can legitimately be discussed in camera was increased to fourteen, and the Ombudsman encourages municipal councils, CAO’s, and the general public to educate themselves better about what is allowed to be discussed in closed meetings and what is not.
The policy is that, as a rule, councils should always meet in public, so that residents can be informed about what their representatives are doing, what policies are being decided upon, and to ensure that nothing improper is being discussed. However, since the Ombudsman’s Office was mandated to oversee municipalities at the beginning of 2016, the majority of complaints with which they have dealt with since have been related to municipal councils, and often in relation to the abuse of closed meetings.
For example, the Ombudsman investigated a complaint that the council for the Township of Lanark Highlands inappropriately met in camera on July 17, 2017 under the “advice subject to solicitor client privilege” and “personal matters” exceptions to the open meeting rules. The Ombudsman found that council discussed a number of items while in camera that were not included in the closed meeting agenda. Two of the topics of discussion, financial software and council’s interaction and communication structure with staff, did not fit within the closed meeting exceptions.
This seems to be a common problem. Council go into closed session to discuss a legitimate issue, but then continue in camera to talk and decide on other issues that they are required to discuss in open session. The Township of Russell held discussions in camera which the Ombudsman found pertained to fundraising, naming rights and advertising for the sports facility, not to personal matters. Accordingly, the meeting was not permitted to be closed to the public.
A recent incident in the Niagara Region in December has also led to an investigation by the Ombudsman. Town reporters were covering the council meeting, a reporter for a local paper and a blogger, when Council went into closed session. The two reporters left their laptops and notes on the table when they left the room, waiting for the meeting to reopen to the public. The CAO and Council accused them of continuing to record the session, which they were not doing, and confiscated their laptops and notes. The two reporters were then escorted from the building.
Although the CAO and council apologised and returned the materials, the Ombudsman is investigating why the notes were confiscated in the first place, a clear breech of the freedom of the press. In looking into the matter, he also had cause to investigate the legitimacy of the council being in closed session in the first place.
Councils and CAO’s across the province seem to think that they have a right to secrecy when discussing matters of public interest, and are abusing the in camera meetings, a violation of the Municipal Act. In camera sessions are not meant to be a way by which councils avoid being monitored, or through which they can circumvent their legal responsibilities to be transparent and open. Ombudsman Dubé is interested in hearing from the public on these matters, and has made the issue of closed council meetings a matter of some urgency. Democracy needs this kind of scrutiny.