I’ve been debating whether to resuscitate a project I undertook at the Expositor’s sister paper in Woodstock, the Sentinel-Review. The project was called, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, “Open your doors, Oxford.”
It started after I returned from a Township of East Zorra-Tavistock council meeting in July 2010, incensed council had closed the door for an in-camera session to be “educated” on wind farms. So I set about downloading, reading and tracking when each of the County of Oxford’s nine councils went behind closed doors.
Councils can, of course, go behind closed doors to discuss a limited number of topics as defined in the Ontario Municipal Act. The recommendation to do so comes from whomever in each municipality has overall responsibility for assembling meeting agendas, be it the chair of the meeting or the staff member assigned as clerk/recording secretary. Council (or any of its committees or boards) must vote to close the door, reading in public the legislative reason for why the meeting is being closed to the public. Until that resolution is read, discussed and carried by majority vote, the meeting remains public.
The Ontario Ombudsman, André Marin, through his office has published a fantastic guide for those who might not be policy wonks like me on the open-door spirit that our municipalities are supposed to use to guide decisions. Though his repeated investigations (and all the others not done by him in cities like Brantford who hire third-party private closed-meeting investigators) suggest there’s legacy thinking deeply rooted among many councils and municipal staff members. That legacy thinking is “when in doubt, close the door,” as opposed to what’s encouraged by the law— “when in doubt, keep the doors wide open.”
In the seven months since starting at the Expositor I’ve heard the periodic complaints city council spends too much time behind closed doors. That too much of what it’s considering is done behind closed doors. Those are easy allegations to make, often too affected by how close (or how distant) the person making them is to the council table when the door is closed. This council also has at least one crusading member who rarely, if ever, votes to go in-camera— though the votes’ sincerity is questionable since more often than not it’s a protest vote that councillor knows won’t change the overall decision.
So, after all that rambling— is it worth examining this in Brantford? To what extent? Please vote in the poll below.