Cape Breton regional councillors say two ministers of municipal affairs have approved the practice of holding strategic planning meetings behind closed doors, regardless of Nova Scotia legislation.
CBRM council and staff came under fire last week for holding private meetings at a local resort.
The province's Municipal Government Act says council meetings must be open to the public, except in limited circumstances, and strategic planning is not one of them.
Mayor Amanda McDougall said former municipal affairs minister Chuck Porter approved the practice in 2019 and the new minister did the same just last week during council's planning sessions.
"Like our former minister of municipal affairs, our new minister of municipal affairs, Brendan Maguire, who got to join in virtually, commended us on undertaking such a task," McDougall said.
The mayor and several councillors defended the private meetings during a public council session on Tuesday.
They insisted the meetings did not contravene the legislation and that the effort was worthwhile.
They said councillors and staff got to know each other better and were able to agree on some common ground.
Under the legislation, council and committee meetings must be advertised in advance and open to the public.
It says councils may meet in closed session for only eight reasons:
acquisition, sale, lease and security of municipal property;
setting a minimum price to be accepted by the municipality at a tax sale;
litigation or potential litigation;
legal advice eligible for solicitor-client privilege;
Coun. Gordon MacDonald said non-profit organizations often hold closed-door planning sessions and he said people should not be angry with CBRM council or staff.
"If you want to put all that pressure on somebody, go talk to the ministers of municipal affairs and put the pressure there where it belongs," he said.
Minister declined interview
The new minister declined an interview and the department did not say what advice, if any, Maguire gave CBRM in private meetings.
But the department said in an email that strategic planning should be done openly and collaboratively with the public before a plan is finalized.
"The Municipal Government Act outlines the parameters of how councils meet," it said.
"The province does not provide legal advice to municipalities on this, or other matters. If a municipality has questions about the interpretation of the MGA, they should seek their own independent legal advice in this regard."
Public will get a say
McDougall said she checked with CBRM's solicitor, Demetri Kachafanas, and he is fine with closed-door meetings for workshops that do not involve council making decisions.
"We would never go forward with anything like this without making sure that we're in the right," she said.
McDougall said the meetings were just the first step in the strategic planning process and that the public would have a say in the final document.
Councillors also complained about the backlash from the public, who expressed concerns over the cost of the meetings and over the fact that a select number of businesses and organizations got to meet privately with council.
Meetings cost $4,200
Cape Breton University political scientist Tom Urbaniak said those private sessions could be considered lobbying.
McDougall denied that, saying there were no backroom deals or handshakes.
She also said CBRM paid around $4,200 for 28 people to attend the three-day sessions.
She said some councillors and staff stayed overnight the first night only, because the first day's session ran 12 hours long.
Details on who stayed over and who attended the sessions were not immediately available.
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