It’s time to punish municipal councils who hold illegal closed-door meetings, Ontario Ombudsman André Marin said during a province-wide press conference Oct. 30.
Marin was releasing his first report on how well Ontario’s law restricting closed meetings — known as the Sunshine Law — is being followed. He said adherence to the law is a mixed bag across Ontario.
“Some councils are models of transparency,” Marin told reporters. “Others are shockingly secretive and even openly defiant in the face of public complaints. In this case, diversity is not a good thing.”
Ontarians are right to expect their municipal politicians to follow the law, Marin said. That’s why he has used his office to push and prod local governments to fall in line with the rules set out in the Municipal Act.
Since gaining oversight of municipal councils in 2008, his office has received more than 300 complaints related to closed-door meetings, including 128 this year. Marin said he’s frustrated some councils flout the law, knowing full well that there are no penalties for breaking the rules.
“Penalties are something the provincial government needs to start thinking about,” Marin said. “I say that simply because a good way to get people’s attention is to provide a consequence. And some municipal councils play loose with the rules because there are no consequences.”
A fine or even jail time would get people’s attention, he said.
“Even in the fifth year of the Sunshine Law, too many municipal councils are playing by their own rules, closing meetings illegally, voting behind closed doors, you name it.”
He said if councillors knew they could be prosecuted for breaking the open-meetings law, it would send a strong message that the province takes the issue seriously.
The good news, he said, is that violators are the exception, not the rule, and even some of the ones that broke the rules have embraced his office’s recommendations, Marin said.
“But the bad news is, some of the worst offenders are the most recalcitrant. There was a surprising amount of resistance and defiance in our investigations this year. That’s another reason for this report.”
In August, Marin singled out Sudbury city council for its refusal to co-operate with his investigators when they came to town in June.
...the bad news is, some of the worst offenders are the most recalcitrant. There was a surprising amount of resistance and defiance in our investigations this year. That’s another reason for this report.
Local councillors have been investigated repeatedly by Marin’s office in the five years since he gained oversight of municipalities, but have been cleared of wrongdoing each time. However, the most recent investigation — over the propriety of three meetings held in late 2011 to discuss the future of Auditor General Brian Bigger — led the ombudsman to issue a report labelling Sudbury as the most difficult and least co-operative council with which he’s ever dealt.
Marin was upset only three city councillors and the city clerk co-operated with his investigators. The rest refused because they insisted they had the right to have the city’s legal counsel present, an opinion backed by city solicitor Jamie Canapini.
“It sounds like something right out of the Twilight Zone,” Marin said. “In Sudbury, only three councillors chose to participate — and the rest snubbed the office. We’re trying to be tolerant. We want to educate councillors and the public. But co-operating with an investigation is not an option — it’s compulsory.”
Another “Twilight Zone” example, he said, was in London, where some councillors were obsessed with finding out the name of the person who filed the complaint.
“They said they had the right to face their ‘accuser’,” Marin said. “And they referred to ombudsman oversight as creating a police state.”
He also cited the case of Leeds and the Thousand Islands, where councillors held a private meeting to give themselves a 60 per cent pay raise.
“Again, it’s the kind of thing you can’t make up.”
In the same report, the ombudsman called for all closed-door meetings to be recorded. That way, when his office receives a complaint, he can simply review the recording to decide whether the rules were followed. Marin repeated that call on Oct. 30.
“When we go to investigate a closed meeting now, all we have to work with are councillors’ recollections,” he said. “Recording meetings on audio or video would not only save time and resources for all of us, it would help ensure the rules are being followed.”
He’ll report next year on how many councils are following this recommendation. Marin is the closed-door meeting investigator for 191 of Ontario’s 444 municipalities. All towns and cities must have an investigator, but can hire their own if they don’t want to use Marin, who provides his services free-of-charge.
You can read the full report on open meetings at ombudsman.on.ca.