Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Municipal Councils Should Face Penalties for Meeting in Secret: Ombudsman

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Municipal Councils Should Face Penalties for Meeting in Secret: Ombudsman

Article excerpt

Marin wants end to private council meetings

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TORONTO - Municipal councils in Ontario should face consequences when they ignore the law that requires most of their meetings be public, ombudsman Andre Marin said Tuesday as he accused some politicians of "twisting the rules."

Local councils could be discussing matters of public safety and other issues that people have every right to hear, but some go out of their way to close the doors, added Marin.

"Some councils are still breaking the law, whether through ignorance or intent," he said. "My main concerns haven't changed: there are no consequences for breaking it."

The Bruce County council near Lake Huron held eight years of secret meetings with a government agency to discuss burying nuclear waste in the Kincardine area.

"I can't think of a case where there would be a greater case to meet publicly," said Marin.

The town council in Elliott Lake kept no records on 12 years of secret meetings, so officials could not find out if there were debates about the parking garage on the roof of the local shopping mall, which collapsed in 2012, killing two women.

"The commissioner (who headed the inquiry into the mall collapse) couldn't determine whether the risks of the mall were discussed during those meetings, and this is a situation of life and death," added Marin.

The independent government watchdog also singled out the Waterloo council for devising a "novel" way around the open meeting rule by having only small groups hold meetings but not enough for a quorum of council.

"I've rarely seen something so contemptuous of the rule of law," said Marin. "It was really an incredible disclosure by the city of Waterloo that they thought they could get away with it."

Municipal councils can have the ombudsman investigate complaints about closed meetings for free, or hire a "review officer" through the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, but Marin said they do shoddy work and err on the side of secrecy.

"Most of them write reports anonymously, which is kind of ironic when you're dealing with transparency at the local level," he said. "We found those reports largely to be riddled with inconsistencies, poor analysis of the facts and the law . …

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