I am being given an opportunity to hop back on a favourite pulpit when it comes to closed-door meetings.
Municipalities have the right to close the doors to their meetings, which must otherwise be open to members of the public. There are a series of exceptions in the Ontario Municipal Act that allow those doors to be closed.
Under the act, prior to closing the door a resolution must be read stating the general intent of why council is meeting in private. Those reasons are for matters pertaining to:
- the security of the property of the municipality or its local boards;
- personal information about identifiable individuals, including municipal or local board employees;
- proposed or pending acquisition or disposition of land by the municipality or local board;
- labour relations or employee negotiations;
- litigation or potential litigation, including matters before administrative tribunals, affecting the municipality or local board;
- advice that is subject to solicitor-client privilege, including communications necessary for that purpose;
- a matter in respect of which a council, board, committee or other body may hold a closed meeting under another act;
- consideration of a Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act request, if council is the designated the ‘head of the institution’ per that act; and
- for the purpose of educating or training the members.
The one most often misunderstood is “personal information” about an “identifiable individual.” Too often, and the jury’s still out on whether the Sept. 19, 2012, finance committee committee meeting is one of those times, councillors and staff members focus too much on the “identifiable” individual. As I quoted Western prof Andrew Sancton in this piece for my Alma mater in 2009, that’s misplaced emphasis.
Sancton cautioned that some councils misunderstand the intent of the exemption however, focusing on the “identifiable individual” component rather than whether what’s being discussed is a “personal matter.” It leads to situations where councils close the door as soon as they discuss something that identifies someone, without any judgment as to whether personal, private information would be released as a result.
Or in a worst-case scenario, the doors close when councillors don’t want their personal opinions about an identifiable individual on the public record.
His belief is that councils should use the clause judiciously and only to protect personal, private information.
In the most recent case I’m griping about, the suggestion is an identifiable individual(s) was behind some “ooops” accounting at the Brant County Health Unit where some deliverables not delivered until 2012 were left in the 2011 budget. That the error was made should be public knowledge. However, I’m not as sure that council and its finance committee should be protecting the identity of the person(s) involved just because of an accounting error. Is that personal information? The consequences, if any, if enforced, quality as personal information, but I struggle on whether the act(s) would be.