Township vindicated in report by closed meeting investigator, sort of

Written by  Wednesday, 23 January 2019 11:18
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Last summer South Frontenac Councillor Ross Sutherland lodged a complaint about Council’s in camera discussions of litigation on Sydenham’s water treatment plant. The essence of Sutherland’s complaint, according to the report that came out as the result of it being lodged, was that “the public should have been better informed, in a general way, about the closed session item.”

A report to the township by “closed meeting investigator” Amberley Gavel Ltd, was released this week.

Amberley Gavel looked at whether the closed meeting that Council held, on August 7 of last year, concerning litigation in relation to the Sydenham Water System, conforms to rules set out for closed meetings in the Municipal Act of Ontario.

Sutherland said this week that his complaint was not centred on whether a closed meeting was justified, but on whether the public had a right to know that the litigation related to the Sydenham Water System, a fact that was not disclosed at the time. Sutherland also complained about some of the debate that took place at that closed meeting, which, he said, could have been conducted in open session.

“It is an issue of transparency,” Sutherland said, “people have a right to know that litigation which may result in a cost to the township of hundreds of thousands of dollars, relates to the water system, a fact that was not disclosed at the time.

In their findings, Amberley Gavel said first that the in-camera session was justified under the Municipal Act.

They also said, however, that instead of saying in the agenda for the August 7 meeting that the in camera session was being held “to discuss litigation”, the agenda could, and should, have offered more detail.

“The in camera session could have been titled: Closed session dealing with litigation, including matters before administrative tribunals, affecting the municipality or local board, …, respecting the Sydenham Water Treatment Plant.” They also said that the township could have reported more about the meeting in the minutes to the open session of council that followed the closed meeting.

In their conclusion, Amberley Gavel said that the closed meeting was justified, that any lack of disclosure before or after the meeting “does not render the meeting or the outcome of the meeting improper or illegal”.

However, they also said “Council could have been more open and transparent, …, ands should consider amending its practices to do so wherever possible.”

“These recommendations are important,” said Sutherland, “without them, for example, a major piece of municipal infrastructure could have a problem and that problem is never reported out the public. All discussions take place at a staff level and in closed meetings. Then a settlement is reached with a confidentiality agreement. In this situation, a matter of significant public interest involving hundreds of thousands of dollars of public money could pass without the public, even in a general way, knowing. This does not seem to meet any level of trenchancy and openness.”

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