Abbotsford Fails 9 of 11 Best Practices for Open Meetings

Abbotsford Council Fails 9 of 11 BC   Ombudsperson Best Practices for Open Meetings

With all this lip service being given to transparency at City Hall I have to wonder if any of the candidates even know what it means. As far as I can tell, the records of the incumbents don’t support any semblance of transparency. Well, Henry Braun is the new kid at the table and has claimed he has pushed for more transparency but has been blocked so he should be given the benefit of doubt. Bruce Banman is also new so he could be given some leeway but there are many instances where he has not exercised the transparency that is available to him. For instance, he selected the members of the Homeless Task Force that did not include many of the care community that would have been very valuable and included some that have questionable connection to the issue. (I credit him with the selection because he took credit for the Task Force in the announcement). So I have to doubt his commitment to transparency.

What are The Legal Restrictions

First it is important to understand that The Community Charter (the CC) makes it very clear that all meetings of council (including committee meetings) must be open to the public except as provided in the CC. And that no bylaws can be passed in closed meetings. The CC does allow some things to be decided by resolution in closed meetings but the way I read it (as does the BC Ombudsperson), preference is to doing as much in public as possible.

We often hear that some items have to be discussed in closed meetings by law. I have heard reference to the three “Ls” – Legal, Labour, Land. Well, the Community Charter (the CC) doesn’t really require the three Ls to be dealt with in closed meetings.

Required Closed Meetings

In fact, there are only 5 subjects the CC requires be dealt with in closed meetings and I’ve provided a shortened version below.  I’ve tried to remove the legalese to make it more readable but in doing so I probably  have altered the legal meaning so don’t use this as legal.

  1. A request under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act,
  2. Confident negotiations with the federal and/or provincial government,
  3. Investigation under the Ombudsperson Act,
  4. A matter that other legislation requires the public be excluded,
  5. Audit info for the Auditor General for Local Government Act.

As you can see the five subjects that must be discussed in closed meetings relate to rather boring subjects that would have little interest for most of us. These aren’t what I’d refer to as effecting the transparency of our Council.

Meetings that May be Closed

Most of the lack of transparency comes from an overly zealous use of the section allowing that meetings may be closed to the public. The CC provides 15 instances where council meetings MAY be closed – not that it HAS to be closed. I won’t detail them all but they include discussing items that council may not wish to disclose to the public – such as land, legal and labour.

Sometimes it make sense to not publicize the discussions: such as negotiating contracts with labour but after the contract is signed I think it would be appropriate to provide the contract info to the public. After all, if the contract is for more than $75k per annum, it has to be published in the yearly Statement of Financial Information. Purchasing land would be another instance where the public should know what land has been purchased by the City. The info is readily available to anyone with a Land Titles account.

As for legal, I think it would be appropriate to disclose who made the decisions to pursue certain courses of action. For instance, the courts recently denied the City’s motion to disallow the Drug War Survivors to represent the homeless in their case claiming wrongful eviction from Jubilee Park. The City has decided to file an appeal of this ruling but won’t reveal who authorized the appeal. I think that the public should know who authorized filing the appeal.

Current Practice of Abbotsford Council

The current practice of Abbotsford Council is to provide a notice that the meeting is to be closed and to list the sections of CC that provides for closure of the meeting. There is no information on the topic to be discussed so the public can only speculate what is being discussed.

During my research, I have discovered dozens of instances where decisions have been made in closed meetings with no record that such a resolution has been passed. I have been stymied at trying to figure out why the City has taken certain actions because the decision cannot be discussed. Some of these have been so mundane such as the purchase of land near Mill Lake Park.

Best Practices Guide

To help local governments understand and follow the principles of open government, the BC Office of the Ombudsperson produced a Best Practices Guide for Local Governments in 2012. It lists 11 Best Practices for closed meetings. I have provided a list of them below and a pass/fail grade for the Abbotsford Council.

Abbotsford Report Card

 

Best Practices (Closing a Meeting)
 
Best practices with respect to closing a meeting include:
  • using paragraph 90(1)(n) if there is reason to question whether it is necessary to close a meeting

F

  • providing as much detail as possible about the basis for closing the meeting without undermining the reason for closing the meeting

F

  • including in the resolution to close a meeting a description of each distinct matter to be discussed and the authorizing provision

F

  • reading the resolution to close a meeting aloud

P

  • stating whether council will reconvene in an open meeting at the end of the closed session

P

Best Practices (Conducting a Closed Meeting)
 
Best practices with respect to conducting a closed meeting include:
  • restricting discussion to subjects that were authorized by the resolution to close the meeting

F*

  • whenever possible, avoiding passing resolutions in closed meetings

F

  • keeping a detailed record of closed meetings

F*

Best Practices (After a Closed Meeting)
 
Best practices with respect to actions after a closed meeting include:
  • complying with the provisions of FIPPA

F

  • establishing a process and assigning responsibility to specific staff for reviewing and releasing minutes of closed meetings and related information no longer requiring confidentiality

F

  • releasing as much information as possible as often as possible once confidentiality is no longer required

F

Note

The principles of open government require that information is readily available to the public. Thus I have given council an F* if I do not know whether they are following the Best Practice.

These Best Practices were published in September 2012. Council has had 2 years to implement these practice and yet has failed to do so. These practices don’t only apply to council meetings but also to committee meetings and from my experience committee meetings would fail  all 11 of the Best Practices.

My Resolution

When elected, the first motion I will put before council will be to enact all 11 Best Practices for council and its committees.