Open meeting law a necessity for democracy

First published:
Oct 22, 2003

Municipal candidates running for office better pay heed to Information and Privacy Commissioner Dr. Ann Cavoukian, who is calling on the provincial government to enact an open meetings law.

The commissioner has seen a 25 per cent increase in requests for access to information held by municipal governments.

“Saying ‘trust me’ isn’t acceptable any more,” she said.

Transparency, integrity and accountability cannot be campaign slogans any longer. Concerns over backroom sessions, closed-door meetings outside of public scrutiny are growing across the province.

She is calling for legislation requiring municipalities to give the public adequate advance notice of each council and committee meeting. She also wants to see councils prohibited from considering business not included on published notices.

She wants to give the public a legal right to complain if it feels that open meeting rules have not been followed and establish an efficient and accessible oversight system with a body responsible for investigating complaints and resolving disputes. The legislation should also include remedies and penalties if the law is broken

In fact, there are very few exceptions to open meetings at the local level. Council meetings can only be closed when dealing with property matters such as purchase or sale, disclosure of personal or financial information in respect of a member of council or staff, employee negotiations and litigation. With the most minor of exceptions, that holds true for school boards, too. The spirit is no different.

Unfortunately, There are far too many cases where Northumberland County politicians get away with abuses using intimidation and public ignorance. And there are plenty of examples, far too many to list in a single column.

The annual one that is most galling is the setting of budgets. Most of the deliberations are behind closed doors or the public is unaware.

Civil servants are already starting to set budgets. Within the next few weeks, they will start to review spending of the past year and come up with a wish list. Politicians will be kept informed, but nothing will be made public until there is little to be done or said.

Then there is planning. Certainly, there is the planning advisory committee and committees of adjustment where council appointees from the community are meant to go over plans in public. And legislation clearly sets out the guidelines for development. But rarely does the public get input until the process is way down the road.

Public meetings often resemble a circus rather than a serious attempt to hear or give concerns.

As groups like future Watch in Port Hope and the citizens who opposed Wal-Mart and other box stores for their opinions.

And if the system weren’t dysfunctional then there would not be calls from citizen groups and municipal leaders for an overhaul to the Ontario Municipal Board. It is the body meant to review planning proposal when developers, citizens and the municipality cannot agree. Citizens are rarely successful. And it is never advisable to show up without deep pockets and expensive lawyers.

The first thing that must be done is a redefinition of the word meeting, Cavoukian argues. It must be expanded to include any type of deliberation, even if a decision is not made.

Second, notice of closed-door sessions must be made public. Often councillors will stay late of meet early without any public notification. By law, the discussion is the only portion that is protected. Any decisions must, and this deserves real emphasis, be made in public. All too often this is not followed.

The call for an oversight body is the most contentious aspect. Critics will argue this only creates further bureaucracy and costs taxpayers. And with examples like the Ontario Municipal Board, the critics can make a good case.

Possibly the use of mediators to resolve differences might be one approach. This would remove the responsibility from politicians to lead the process and provide some outside, unprejudiced facilitation.

However, an appeals process and stiff penalties may be the only way to get municipal politicians to wake up. The worst offenders are those who have been office the longest. IT is those people who become desensitized to public opinion, making the process mechanical rather than human.

But the burden of responsibility does not lie with the municipal candidates alone. We must become more knowledgeable of the legislation and be prepared to assert our rights. For those who have gallantly done so, and failed to get the desired result, we can only extend sympathy. But a better-educated public is a key aspect to this initiative.

As the politicians come around to the door or when you see them at public meetings, voters must demand more than platitudes about being more open, especially from incumbents. Sadly, there is little to trust. But we must start somewhere. Hopefully, Cavoukian will be successful.

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