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Port Stanley News RSS Feed  Editorials Is It Really Open and Transparent

by Francie Dennison

"What's the point of having an Open Session in council meetings if every issue of any substance is discussed and decided in Closed Session or after Closed Session?" my husband asked me after the last Central Elgin Council Meeting.

This is not the first time he has questioned me on this issue since he started attending council meetings with me last fall. He has also criticized that so often the issues and by-laws are voted upon with no discussion about them during council meetings. He is of the opinion that either everything is discussed and decided upon ahead of council meetings, or Council just doesn't care about the issues.

Now a quick check of the Municipal Act reveals that council meetings are supposed to be open to the public and a municipality's business is supposed to be open and transparent. They may close a meeting to the public if there is to be a discussion about security of property, personal matters about an identifiable individual, a proposed or pending acquisition or disposition of land by the municipality, labour relations or employee negotiations, litigation or potential litigation, advice that is subject to solicitor-client privilege, or a matter in respect of which the council may hold a closed meeting under another Act; and must close a meeting or part of a meeting if the discussion is about a request under the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, or about if the subject matter relates to a request for council approval to disclose information about hazards or risks to public safety.

With no delegations on the February 16, 2016 Central Elgin council meeting agenda, correspondence requiring some sort of action by Council was up first, and first on the list was whether or not to add the Dominion of Canada building (D.O.C.) to the Clerk's List of Properties of Cultural Heritage Value or Interest. Now by no stretch of the imagination does any discussion or decision on this fall under the list of items which may or must be dealt with in a Closed Session, yet because Council had something about the D.O.C. set to be discussed under Closed Session Item 3, Council decided to shove the discussion and decision on this publicly contentious item to be dealt with after Closed Session.

By-laws 141, 142 & 143 (transfer and purchase agreements) were also deferred for discussion and vote until after Closed Session, meaning all discussion about them and the decisions on them would not be heard during the public Open Session. Now, the public and media could have hung around until after Closed Session (which none of them did) but there is no guarantee there would be any further discussion on them. It could easily be that the best they would get is the decisions, which is what I got the time I did wait over an hour for Closed Session to conclude. I did not get a peep on what had been discussed, what points had been raised or by whom, or on the margin by which the vote passed.

As I have noticed many times, and as my husband has now noted on several occasions, the way they often talk at council about items on the agenda and the way they don't talk about other items, it leaves the observer with the distinct impression that council members have previously discussed and reached an agreed upon decision regarding the item. Whether such discussions might have been in a restaurant (as did some members of London City Council not long ago), or by email, phone or text message is anybody's guess, but it certainly seems as if they may not have been conducted in an open public meeting.

"Why do they even bother to have council meetings," my husband asked me, "when they've already decided everything ahead of time?" Why indeed? Decided ahead of time or decided behind closed doors, neither method is conducive to open and transparent municipal government or the appearance of open and transparent municipal government.

Last Updated: Thursday, 11 August 2016 12:22:55 PM EST

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