Ombudsman wishes the public to be informed

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The Ontario Ombudsman, Paul Dubé, has issued information for both the general public and municipal councils to ensure that regulations covering municipal council meetings and activities are understood by all parties. Given the increasing number of complaints his office has received in the past year, and the new additions to the Municipal Act brought into force on January 1, information on Closed, or In-Camera, Council meetings is provided here.

On March 1 of this year, the regulations requiring all municipalities to have Codes of Conduct for Council members, and the installation of an Integrity Commissioner for each municipality, come into force. Information of these matters are also provided for the benefit of the public.

Closed meetings: Best practices

Municipal meetings should be open, with rare exceptions, as provided for in the Municipal Act, 2001, s. 239. The Ombudsman’s investigations of closed meetings consider whether or not the law and best practices were followed. Best practices include the following:

Give adequate advance notice: Meeting agendas should clearly identify any closed sessions and the reasons for them, and should be made available to the public in advance.

Pick the right exception: Make sure the exception under which the meeting is closed is identified, and appropriate.

Record the meeting: Closed session minutes should include place and time, attendees, a description of all matters discussed, and any motions or votes. The Ombudsman also recommends audio or video recording all closed meetings.

Make a clear resolution: Authorize the closed session by making a resolution during open session that includes meaningful information about the issue to be discussed behind closed doors.

Stay on topic: While in closed session, ensure that the discussion does not stray from the matters authorized in the resolution to close the meeting.

Vote with caution: Voting in a closed meeting is only allowed for procedural reasons or to give directions or instructions to staff and others identified under the Act.

Report back publicly: After a closed session, report publicly in open session on what occurred, giving as much detail as possible.

When in doubt, open the meeting.

Codes of Conduct and Integrity Commissioners

Every municipality should have a Code of Conduct that applies to members of council, local boards and committees.

The Code of Conduct should include a public complaint process. The municipality should appoint an impartial Integrity Commissioner to review these complaints.

The Code of Conduct should be: approved by council; posted publicly; used to train members.

There should be no fee or other barrier to make a complaint to the Integrity Commissioner.

Integrity Commissioners can be authorized to dismiss complaints that are frivolous or vexatious.

Complaints can be brought to the Ontario Ombudsman as a last resort – that is, if the locally-appointed Integrity Commissioner has reviewed the matter or declined to do so, and the complainant is not satisfied.

The Ombudsman’s review in such cases will consider whether the local Integrity Commissioner: acted in accordance with relevant legislation; considered the issues presented; followed a fair practice; obtained and considered relevant information; and provided sufficient reasons to support their decision based on the available evidence.

Questions?    [email protected].

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