Last night before Fort Frances council, 12 items were placed “in-camera” (behind closed doors).
The Ontario Municipal Act clearly specifies those matters which may be discussed in secret. Section 55 of the Municipal Act leaves no doubt about how councils must conduct themselves: “Except as provided in this section, all meetings shall be open to the public.”
Those exceptions are spelled out in Section 55 (5). “A meeting or part of a meeting may be closed to the public if the subject matter being considered is:
(a). the security of the property of the municipality or local board;
(b). personal matters about an identifiable individual, including municipal or local board employees;
(c). a proposed or pending acquisition of land for municipal or local board purposes;
(d). labour relations or employee negotiations;
(e). litigation or potential litigation, including matters before administrative tribunals, affecting the municipality or local board;
(f). the receiving of advice that is subject to solicitor-client privilege, including communications necessary for that purpose;
(g). a matter in respect of which a council, board, committee, or other body has authorized a meeting to be closed under another Act.”
Equally important, just because a council is allowed to discuss certain matters in secret, many of those decisions still must be endorsed in an open meeting.
While the law was intended to define specific matters which warrant confidentiality, many municipal governments routinely violate the act—either out of ignorance, indifference, or fear of having the public make judgments on their decisions.
Caroline Di Cocco, a Liberal MPP for Sarnia, has a private member’s bill (Bill 95—Ethics and Transparency in Public Matters) before the Ontario legislature that would impose penalties ($1,000) for violations of the in-camera provisions of the municipal act, as well as providing “public access that is as open as possible to meetings of the designated public bodies and their communities.”
It is welcome piece of legislation that deserves support. Bill 95 makes councils more accountable. If Ontario believes a fine of $5,000 is appropriate for parking illegally in a handicapped parking spot, a fine of $1,000 for violating the municipal act is not inappropriate.
Currently, there are no fines for violating the Municipal Act.
Bill 95 can be improved by creating a complaints mechanism for the public to voice their objections when they believe an improper closed meeting has taken place. This could be carried out through the “Privacy Commission.”
Or, should Bill 95 fail to receive approval, then the new Ontario Municipal Act, which also is currently in hearings, should include a penalty and accountability mechanism to make councils more accountable.