Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Council Secrecy in Ontario Highlighted by Ombudsman

By stephen Vance, Editor

Ontario’s Ombudsman André Marin, in his annual report on local government transparency has said that Ontario municipalities are addicted to secrecy, and that councils make a concerted effort to keep residents from learning too much by holding excessive “in camera” or behind closed door meetings.

There is, in my view, a putrefactive decay in democracy at the municipal government level due to the insistence on officials to continue conducting city business secretly and illegally,” the Ombudsman told a Queen’s Park press council this week.

I can’t imagine that many people were surprised at hearing the statements from the Ombudsman. Council secrecy is quite likely the most common complaint we hear at the Independent from residents who are convinced that our own council conducts too much business behind closed doors.

Whether Meaford’s council has ever violated provincial legislation with regard to closed door meetings, we can’t actually know. This is the first problem for Ontario residents.

Closed door meetings by municipal council have to meet a very narrowly defined criteria in order to be deemed appropriate for in-camera discussion. There are indeed times when a council can and should discuss specific items out of the view of the public.

Legal updates, staff issues, discussion of potential land sale or transfer are all items that involve a certain amount of confidentiality, and so a municipal council simply cannot discuss such items in an open meeting.

That leaves the ratepayers who elect those representatives in a position of having to trust that councillors and the senior staff of this municipality will follow the rules, and not conduct meetings behind closed doors unless absolutely necessary.

Our new Clerk has told me that inappropriate closed-door meetings are something that he would not allow council to conduct. Part of the Clerk’s job is to ensure that our council adheres to provincial legislation, and that the public’s right to know what is happening with their local government is protected.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of the Clerk, however unless a complaint is filed, and an investigation undertaken, how are we to be certain, especially when from time to time a councillor will state publicly that council is abusing in-camera meeting procedures as Meaford Councillor Deborah Young did in March of 2012?

Councillor Young, in open council last year claimed that in her opinion, a culture of back-room politicking had developed on this council. Specifically Young said that members of council are communicating via email to garner support for various resolutions.

Ontario’s Ombudsman this week said essentially the same thing – “Meanwhile, hanky-panky continues to take place in the backrooms, and councils are continuing to cling to cloak-and-dagger old-school boardroom politics,” he told reporters this week.

The email question is one that Ontario’s government should address. The current legislation certainly hasn’t taken into account modern means of communication. While it would be illegal for four of our councillors to have breakfast at a local restaurant while discussing municipal affairs, councillors across the province are seemingly free to discuss and debate via email behind the scenes.

This is the second problem facing Ontario municipalities – has email replaced open, public discussion?

The third problem for Ontario ratepayers is even more troubling.

Even if a municipal council violates closed-door meeting rules, what are the consequences? You guessed it, nothing, zilch, zero.

The Ombudsman has said that not only are there no consequences for holding inappropriate in-camera meetings, he suggests that the provincial government enables the practice by not having any penalties when councils are caught violating the law.

If there are no consequences, what would be the point in filing a complaint other than the hope that the publicity surrounding such a complaint could shame councillors into following the law.

There is no evidence that Meaford’s council has violated closed-door meeting rules, and as far as we know, no complaints have been filed that would trigger an investigation.

Council secrecy is not a Meaford problem. As the Ombudsman suggests, the practice is rampant in Ontario municipalities, however with a lack of penalties to be imposed, the closed-session laws in Ontario have no teeth.

It would be fairly tough to enforce seat-belt laws if there were no consequences for those who violate the law.

In my view, Ontario’s government needs to do two things. They need to establish penalties for councils that opt to violate the law and keep their residents in the dark, and they need to make it easier for residents concerned about council transparency to file a complaint – and for this issue, the province should have a single body for ratepayers to turn to, as currently only 191 of the 444 municipalities are monitored by Ontario’s Ombudsman since councils are free to opt out of the Ombudsman’s service in favour of other similar investigative services.

As a result, many people don’t even know where to turn when they feel they have a legitimate complaint.  For code of conduct complaints, the Mayor conducts the initial investigation, while for complaints about closed meetings, the Clerk forwards the complaint on to the Local Authority Service (LAS) which is a subsidiary of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario. Roughly 130 Ontario municipalities use this service rather than the provincial Ombudsman.

Council secrecy is a provincial issue, and one that should be addressed immediately.

Editor’s Correction: The original version of this editorial published online mistakenly stated that complaints about Meaford’s council being investigated by the Mayor, though complaints about closed meetings are sent from the Clerk directly to LAS.  The Mayor is the initial investigator for complaints about council conduct. Thank you Meaford Clerk, Robert Tremblay for reminding us of this change, and we apologize for the unintended error.

Editor’s Note: Pick up a copy of today’s Meaford Independent print edition for my annual letter to Santa. Yes, I’m still asking for an Integrity Commissioner action figure, but I’m also asking for other things from Santa including some help with next year’s election!

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