Burlington City Council followed all the rules when it went into closed-door session on four occasions earlier this year.
”We have concluded that the City did not contravene subsection 239(2) of the Municipal Act, 2001 or the Procedure By-Law”, reported a Closed Door Meeting Investigator at a Wednesday Committee meeting.
The closed-door meetings in question were related to land purchases and legal matters.
The investigation was initiated by Mayor Marianne Meed Ward earlier this year in response to complaints from Councillor Shawna Stolte about alleged abuse of closed-door meetings as well as a series of critical comments from local media platforms.
But, while the Investigator concluded Council did nothing wrong, he also suggested that there is room for improvement.
“The City has an opportunity to improve the transparency of its decision-making processes by enhancing the ‘report out’ practices to include a more substantive briefing to the public following closed session”.
The ‘report out’ process refers to the public comments made by councillors, after the closed-door meeting, when they return to public session. In Burlington, that usually takes the form of simply directing staff to follow the confidential instructions they received, nothing more. Few, if any, details are ever provided about what subject was discussed behind closed doors.
The investigator noted that while more and better ‘reporting out’ is not a legal requirement, it is considered a best practice which currently is not well established in Burlington’s Procedure By-law.
“Municipalities should aim to ‘report out’ as much information as possible, while avoiding disclosing so much information that it would negate the very reason for holding a closed meeting in the first place”.
In fact, Council anticipated the question earlier this year. It directed that an Integrity Commissioner be hired to prepare a full report with recommendations to improve a range of internal protocols including the Procedure By-law. That report is expected in June.
Wednesday’s meeting was not without some tension. Councillor Stolte, who was found guilty last month of breaching the confidentiality rules, said that the Investigator’s report confirmed that Council is currently doing the legal “bare limit” when it comes to transparency.
“The Report is clear that yes, technically, the bare minimum thresholds were met to discuss these items behind closed doors, but my question is, is the bare minimum of transparency and accountability good enough……..The City should consider modifying its closed session resolutions to both qualify and disclose the items that are to be given closed session treatment. …. I think the public expects us to do better and we should do better”.
Mayor Marianne Meed Ward acknowledged the ‘reporting out’ issue and reminded the Committee that the June Integrity Commissioner report will probably address that procedure.
“We welcome those recommendations and the opportunity for enhancements. That doesn’t mean that we’ve been doing it wrong. It just means that we’re always looking for ways to do better”.
By Rick Craven