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Do we need to close as much as we think we do?

Closed meetings. Market Squared wants to know why there are so many and why so little information comes out of them to the public
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Closed

We need to know more about what goes on in the closed meeting room at City Hall.

I mention this because news broke from the closed meeting room last Friday announcing that that Chief Administrative Officer Derrick Thomson had “parted ways” with the City of Guelph.

“Parted ways” is an interesting term because it tells us absolutely nothing about the circumstances of Thomson’s departure, nor does it give us context. Was it an angry departure? Was it an “I give up, I can’t help these people” departure?

On the other hand, maybe Thomson’s going to paint clams on a beach somewhere now. The point is, we don’t know.

I hate that.

What’s worse is that we’re resigned to the fact that the closed meeting seal is tighter than the concrete tomb that encases the Chernobyl reactor. The media table at Monday’s council was pretty unanimous in the appraisal that we have a lot of questions about the situation, and nobody’s going to answer them.

And if you say that someone could go off the record and leak, then you clearly don’t remember the inquisition that resulted the last time that happened. I know I do.

So here we are, a bunch of people with a lot of questions and with no reasonable way to get any answers.

But does it have to be this way?

I consulted the website for the Ontario Ombudsman for insight into the hows and whys of closed meetings. There are 14 listed exceptions on the Ombudsman’s site that determine what a closed meeting can be held including the security of the property of the municipality or local board; Personal matters about an identifiable individual; and labour relations or employee negotiations.

I suppose the matter of the CAO “parting ways” with the City would fit with at least two out of three of those examples listed above.

But I don’t think justification for a closed meeting is the problem, what happens afterwards is.

The Ombudsman also offers a list of best practices for closed meetings, and right at the top of the tip sheet is says, “Municipal meetings should be open, with rare exceptions.”

In the case of Guelph City Council, the word “rare” is replaced with “frequent.” It’s hard to recall off the top of one’s head a meeting date of council that didn’t begin with a closed session.

In terms of the actual best practices, the Ombudsman suggests giving adequate advanced notice, that the meeting should be recorded, that it should have a clear resolution, and it should stay on topic.

The Ombudsman also recommends, “After a closed session, report publicly in open session on what occurred, giving as much detail as possible.”

I consulted the meeting minutes from the Feb. 7 council meeting, where the final die was likely cast about Thomson’s parting of the ways with the City of Guelph. It says: “The following matter was considered: Chief Administrative Officer Contract.”

The minutes also noted that the in-camera session was 49 minutes long, so I’m forced to ask if a one-line description meets the Ombudsman’s intent when it says, “giving as much detail as possible”?

I also looked at the City of Guelph’s own materials about the regulation of closed meetings. On the subject of reports, it says: “Whenever possible, written Closed Meeting reports are preferred over verbal reports as the former provides for a more detailed account of the confidential record.”  

Why?

“Written reports also ensure that Council/Committee is prepared for any decisions they may need to consider in relation to a Closed Meeting discussion. It is also important to ensure that information which can be made available to the public is disclosed appropriately.”

So, the public is supposed to know what happens in a closed meeting, and it’s supposed to know what happened in some detail.

What’s more, “Reports and materials prepared for consideration at Closed Meetings are records that may be subject to Freedom of Information requests.”

This next part is interesting.

“The City cannot refuse to disclose information provided in a Closed Meeting report simply on the basis that it was considered at a Closed Meeting.”

I’m cherry-picking quotes, and I’m sure there’s a compelling argument that can be made about how a one-liner fits the definition of disclosure, but I think my layman’s reading of these two sources says there’s a big gulf between what we’re being told, and what council is allowed to tell us.

Recognizing that when it comes to staffing a certain level of confidentiality exists, but the reasons why one of the highest paid, and highly placed members of city staff isn’t there anymore requires more than a one-line explanation.

We also have three deputy CAOs who are having their workloads increased for at least the next five months, even though they’re already managing very busy files for a rapidly growing city. Should we not know why the burden is on them now?

Just a reminder that City Hall is closed for the Family Day holiday on Monday. You know, like it seems to be much of the rest of the time these days.




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