Interestingly, after a year with very few split decisions, Council ended the year with one of its most acrimonious debates – maybe it was a sign that Council was maturing? After all, it would be unhealthy to have no significant disagreements.
The point of contention was the use of secret, or ”in camera,” meetings.
Municipal Law Encourages Open Debate
Provincial law requires Council to be as open as possible. For a limited list of reasons, one of which is to receive legal advice, Council can keep its proceedings secret. Even under these circumstances, while it is possible to go “in camera”, it is not required and the law encourages open debate as the default position. Our Council has also supported increasing public accountability and resident involvement in Township affairs. It is difficult to have meaningful discussions without openness.
Johnson Point and Closed Sessions
Last February the Johnson Point developers asked the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) to approve their proposal, effectively limiting the communities input. They argued that Council was taking too long to make a decision. We asked our lawyer for his advice which he gave to Council in closed session.
Then Council decided, also in closed session, to have an environmental evaluation of Long Bay next to Johnson Point. We keep this confidential despite the fact that the developers, who the Township was in legal proceeding with, knew about the initiative. The developers had to permit the onsite evaluation. In hindsight we could have publicly presented, debated and voted on the Long Bay assessment since it was not hidden from the developer.
After the evaluation was done Council could have, in open session, integrated that report with some updated concerns from the Township planner and prepared a new set of draft conditions for the Point’s development. We could have presented these new conditions to the developers, either before the formal OMB process, or though their mediation procedure, to see if there were any changes the developer favoured that could be brought back for Council’s consideration.
Whether any changes were accepted or rejected, Council would have supported a viable set of conditions which could be accepted by the developers or, if they still wished to take their chances at the OMB, used as the basis for Council’s position at the OMB.
Instead, we asked our lawyer, once again through an “in camera” process, to negotiate a set of conditions with the developer. Once again the developer knew what was going on, but the public did not. Our lawyer reported the results of these negotiations in closed session. Council discussed them “in camera” before they were brought to Council. It is also worth noting that after we had agreed to release the new negotiated conditions they were withheld from the public for another 10 days.
At the regular open Council meeting, when the new draft conditions for development were considered, some Councillors, myself included, moved amendments. Other Councillors felt that these motions violated the “in camera” process – or, at least, deviated from how it has traditionally been used. I think is the main point of contention.
The Fine Line
There is an obvious fine line. Just like you cannot write a good report by committee, it is very hard to negotiate in public. It is not the face-to-face negotiations that need to be public. Rather it is the intent of the negotiations and the consideration of the results that needs to be fully transparent. The community also needs an adequate opportunity to comment, especially when the developer has had good access to the negotiations.
Closed sessions should not be used as a way of removing hard discussions from public scrutiny, nor, should they become a method for developers to remove proposals from public discussion. The approach we used around Johnson Point, might encourage developers to move more quickly to the OMB, if they feel that Council will take their proposals off the open agenda.
This is a complex discussion, but it goes to the heart of transparency and accountability in government and the ability of government to make effective decisions. Do you feel that we should keep our Council meetings as open as possible? I would appreciate any comments you have.
New Year’s Issues
There are many issues that will be coming up this year: the new fire station in Perth Road Village, recreational parks in Sydenham, infrastructure spending, the local impact of the climate change agreement, a new senior’s home, waterfront protection, Township reorganization and the Province’s response to the Official Plan: just to name a few. It promises to be another interesting and productive year.
Thank you for all your feedback last year. I look forward to more this year, both on these issues and on any other concerns you have.