Bruce County's closed meeting review shows some concerns remain

·3 min read

BRUCE COUNTY – The county’s executive committee has received a notice of investigation from the office of the Ontario Ombudsman.

The complaint discussed at the March 18 meeting alleges that the executive committee held four meetings (Sept. 21, 2017, Aug. 2, 2018, Sept. 6, 2018 and Jan. 10, 2019) that did not comply with the open meeting rules of the Municipal Act, 2001.

Also at the March 18 meeting of the executive committee, clerk Donna Van Wyck presented a report on the closed meeting review conducted for meetings held between 2016 and 2020.

The most recent notice of investigation is not the first one received by the committee. At the Jan. 14 council meeting, following the presentation of the closed meeting investigator’s report dated Dec. 31, 2020, council directed staff to review the county’s closed meetings for the past five years to identify any meetings, or portions thereof, where the procedures could be open to a challenge.

Staff looked at whether the subject matter of the items discussed in closed session were not identified in the agenda, might be considered vague, or might be incorrectly stated or inaccurately identified in the agenda; whether the exemption cited in the agenda accurately reflected the subject of the item; whether there was insufficient information available to determine any of this; or staff were simply uncertain.

The review did not include a determination of whether the item discussed in closed session should have been dealt with there or in open council.

Staff reviewed 181 closed meeting minutes from council and 11 committees. There have been a series of investigations related to closed meetings during that time, and the county decided on its own to release minutes or portions of 16 sets of minutes. The result of the review does not include minutes of meetings found to be improperly closed, nor does it include minutes that are currently subject to litigation or investigation.

In all, 21 meetings were identified in the review as meeting one of the criteria listed. None were from 2020.

In discussion, council noted a number of measures have been taken to ensure meetings are conducted according to the Municipal Act, 2001. These include a training session held Feb. 13, 2020 and recommended to be provided once per term of council. Closed meeting reports are to provide the permitted reason. The meeting chair is to announce, in open session, actions taken in closed, providing as much detail as possible without revealing the substance of deliberations.

County Coun. Luke Charbonneau, mayor of Saugeen Shores, commended the clerk for the report.

“It’s not easy to look for mistakes,” he said, noting that in the past couple of years, the issues have been overcome. He suggested referring the list of 21 meetings the clerk found questionable and submitting it to the office of the ombudsman “to ensure there aren’t things that need to be made public … and make sure we’ve put this behind us.”

He went on to say the action would “show we hold ourselves accountable.”

County Coun. Chris Peabody, mayor of Brockton, opposed sending the list to the ombudsman.

“I don’t think we should self-report,” he said.

Warden Janice Jackson, mayor of South Bruce Peninsula, said she could see both sides of the issue.

“We’ve come a long way,” she said, saying she was “fine erring on the side of caution.” And she said the ombudsman would probably be asked (to look at the list of 21 meetings) anyway.

The committee had been evenly divided on the issue, but when it came to the vote, only Peabody opposed the motion.

Pauline Kerr, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Walkerton Herald Times