Burlington City Council is under fire for the frequency and duration of its closed-door, “in-camera” meetings.
The criticism comes from both inside and outside the Council Chamber.
Councillor Shawna Stolte introduced a motion on February 2 directing staff to review the City’s closed- meeting protocol. It was later amended at the February 15 Council meeting, mainly for the purpose of speeding up the review.
“There have been issues raised over the last 12 months in regard to our procedures and processes by which matters before Council are dealt with in open versus closed session meetings”, said Stolte.
Stolte is not the only one concerned about Council’s frequent use of closed-door meetings. Former Alderman and long-time Hamilton Spectator columnist Joan Little recently shared her views.
“The time this Council spends “in camera” (private session, away from public scrutiny) is extensive – probably record-breaking. There may be good reasons …. but it seems to me they spend nearly as much time in-camera as in open session”.
Columnist Pepper Parr has also made an issue of the closed-door meetings.
“As for closed sessions of council, there is nothing but shame for this Council; they have held more closed sessions in this term than in any other in the past decade”.
The popular 905er Blog, which frequently comments on Burlington issues, also weighed in.
“It appears that since 2018 Burlington has been following the often-criticized pattern established in Hamilton of using closed sessions to obscure controversial discussions”.
At one of the more cryptic closed door meetings last year Mayor Meed Ward tried to explain what was going on.
“We are somewhat constrained for reasons Council is aware of, from speaking about that at this point, and I know folks that are unaware may feel a bit confused, but certainly Council is in the loop and understands what we are talking about here”.
There are in fact good, proper and legal reasons for Council to go into closed session. These include legal matters, property purchases, human resources and issues related to specific individuals. Some members of Council understand, however, that the concern must be addressed.
Councillor Angelo Bentivegna told Council that “the public has been asking questions as well”.
Councillor Rory Nisan said, “Clearly there will be some kind of cloud over us until we get to the bottom of it”.
Mayor Meed Ward said that she was “quite convinced that we have been properly in closed session” but agreed that “it has become clear over the last year that there needs to be some discussion around what our obligations to confidentiality are”.
The Mayor went on to advise her colleagues that a lot of conversations have taken place “quietly behind the scenes” and added that “I have already asked for a review of a number of our closed-door meetings to make sure that we were properly in ‘closed’ and to get any suggestions that staff might have for us about how we can continue our shared-journey around maximum transparency”.
The fact that the public criticism is happening now, while Marianne Meed Ward is Mayor, stands in stark contrast to her repeated rhetoric about transparency in local government. During her 2018 election campaign she promised to “Rationalize and restrict the reasons for Council holding closed meetings”.
Councillor Stolte told this week’s meeting that she will not vote to go into closed session again until the review is completed. Later, she advised the media that she will have more to say “…as soon as I am able, I will be very openly clear and on the record what my concerns have been”.
By Rick Craven