I was prepared to write about an entirely different topic this week, but then council had to call another gong sh.... I mean, emergency meeting about 797 Victoria Rd. N.
“Gong Show” is the more appropriate sobriquet though because after barely 24 hours of notice we watched city council spend 88 minutes talking about if what happened at another meeting last week is really what happened. It was like watching a Coen Brothers movie except nobody was having a good time.
First of all, the notice of emergency meeting went out with no indication about the specific issue around 797 Victoria Rd. N. An email was sent to the media with the notice, and when I got it, I went right to the council webpage, which had not yet been updated to reflect that there was a meeting called on Wednesday night, so there was no additional information there either.
At the meeting itself, there was a delegate, and there was a correspondence, but what reasonable expectation was there that the public could meaningfully engage in this conversation without advanced knowledge of what exactly was going to be reviewed?
The original sin in this situation was the fact that the entire matter of 797 Victoria was discussed, debated, and decided inside an in-camera meeting, and it still remains exceedingly unclear why that was in the first place.
By the time you read this, a redacted version of the closed meeting report will have been released to the public, but that’s nearly three weeks too late. The question now is that if a redacted version of the report can be released to the public after the fact, then why the hell couldn’t it be released to the public in the first place?
This is the essential, infuriating problem of city council over the last several years because this is not the first time that actions in closed session have had a visible impact on the regular order of council business. The public sees this but are not given any context because it happened in-camera, and what happens in-camera stays in-camera.
Adding insult to ignorance is that the mayor gavels in the open session with what he calls an act of transparency, reading the topic or topics that were discussed in-camera and telling the public that council discussed those matters. There, now you’re up to date, we talked about the things we were going to talk about.
I understand that there are things, matters of confidentiality, that cannot or should not be discussed in open session. Human resources matters being one, legal advice when comes to matters before the court and the details of sensitive negotiations being others.
That may sound like a defence of how council uses the closed meeting provisions, but here’s the thing: Can’t we know the reasons why council is seeking legal advice without necessarily hearing that legal advice? This situation with 797 Victoria Rd. seems like the ultimate test of this assumption.
First, we now know that the old Shortreed farmhouse was essentially a fire trap, which means there was legal liability and I hate to tell you this, but if someone sues the city we all end up paying for it, and not jut city council.
Second, the property is owned by the Grand River Conservation Authority, which, while not explicitly being public property, is nonetheless owned by a public entity, and one that the City of Guelph pays into and sits on the governing body for.
Third, council knows that heritage is a sore spot for some very vocal constituencies among the general public, and interest in a matter like this was going to be high if a proposed emergency demolition of a listed property was on the open agenda.
Perhaps the urgency to act before Guelph Fire had to be sent up Victoria Road outweighed all other considerations in the closed meeting. That’s understandable, even though the entire situation is unacceptable.
I’m heartened to hear that CAO Scott Stewart will be conducting a review of how the decision was made, and how certain steps and caveats were apparently skipped altogether. Hopefully, this is a fully open process with public engagement and reporting.
For now though, I must regretfully say that I can no longer trust this council’s judgment about what does and does not need to be discussed in closed meetings when even its attempts at transparency are drowned in a morass of procedural confusion. How can the general public understand the decisions council makes when council can’t even understand them?
It’s time for real transparency on closed meetings. Why are you going into closed meeting? Why can’t this topic be discussed in open session? What potential decisions are you going to make? Which members of staff are in closed session with you? What are the potential ramifications for the City? Now, more than ever, we need more than one-sentence summaries from the mayor.
Without these changes, the public is going to be sceptical of the outcome of every closed council meeting from now on. Faith is broken, trust has been lost, and council needs to seriously take steps to build that up again.