As the result of investigation of a complaint about several closed meetings of the Nation Municipality, the Ontario Ombudsman has found three instances where it contravened regulations and violated the Ontario Municipal Act, 2001. But there were four instances where the municipality did not violate the Municipal Act, 2001.
The January 2019 complaint alleged that council’s resolutions to enter closed sessions had not provided sufficient information to allow members of the public to gauge whether the topics of discussion fit within the exceptions permitted under the Ontario Municipal Act. The complain also noted that the French and English versions of the municipality’s bilingual agendas and minutes inconsistently refer to “personnel matters” and “personal matters” when stating closed meeting exceptions. (This turned out to be a translation error and the adjective was the correct one in French.)
Under the Municipal Act, 2001, all meetings of council, local boards and committees of council must be open to the public, unless they fall within prescribed exceptions.
The Ombudsman’s investigation found that The Nation municipal council did not violate the Ontario Municipal Act on December 17, 2018 when it discussed the hiring of individual contractors during a closed session. The discussion fit within the exception cited under the Act for “personal matters” and could have fit within the exception for “labour relations or employee negotiations.”
The Ombudsman said that council likewise did not violate the Act on December 17, 2018 when it discussed the employment conditions of individual contractors in a closed session. The discussion fit within the exception for “labour relations or employee negotiations.”
The Nation council did not violate the Act on January 7 and 14, 2019 when it discussed compensation for municipal employees during a closed session, as the matter could have fit within the exception for “labour relations or employee negotiations.”
Finally, council did not violate the Act when it discussed litigation involving the municipality in a closed session. The discussion fit within the exception cited under the Act for “litigation or potential litigation.”
But council did contravene the Act when it discussed changes to councillor remuneration. This discussion did not fall within the “personal matters” exception, or any other exception, under the Act.
The Nation councillors also violated the Municipal Act, 2001 on January 14, 2019, when it discussed economic development activities in a closed session. The discussion did not fall within the “personal matters” exception, or any other exception, under the Act.
Council contravened the requirements of section 239(4)(a) of the Municipal Act, 2001, and its procedure by-law by failing to state by resolution the general nature of the matters to be considered in camera.
The Ombudsman made recommendations to assist council in fulfilling its obligations under the Act and to enhance the transparency of its meetings. Those recommendations include the suggestion that all councillors should be vigilant in adhering to their individual and collective obligation to ensure that council complies with its responsibilities as they relate to the Municipal Act, 2001 and the municipality’s own procedure by-law.
The Ombudman also stated that the municipality should ensure that no subject is discussed in closed session unless it clearly falls within one of the statutory exceptions to the open meeting requirements.
The Ombudsman also said that The Nation should ensure that its resolutions to proceed “in camera” provide a general description of the issue to be discussed in a way that maximizes the information available to the public while not undermining the reason for excluding the public.
A fourth recommendation was that The Nation should ensure that it creates a complete record of all meetings, both open and closed. A fifth recommendation was that The Nation should introduce a practice of audio or video recording of both open and closed session meetings.
The Ombudsman suggested that The Nation amend its procedure by-law to accurately reflect the exceptions to open meetings set out in the specific sections of the Municipal Act, 2001.
The final recommendation was a call for council to adopt the best practice of reporting back in open session following an “in camera” meeting.
As of January 1, 2008, the Municipal Act, 2001, gives citizens the right to request an investigation into whether a municipality has complied with the Act in closing a meeting to the public. Municipalities may appoint their own investigator. The Act designates the Ombudsman as the default investigator for municipalities that have not appointed their own. Paul Dubé is the Ombudsman of Ontario.
The Nation Municipality will be adopting a resolution related to the Ombudsman report at its September 23 regular meeting, according to Nation CAO Josée Brizard.