What is a closed session? And why can’t council disclose land appraisals in open session?

NORTH HURON – Numerous requests for more details about the sale of municipally-owned land have been made to North Huron council, specifically regarding the recent sale of land earmarked for future development at Hutton Heights and last year’s sale of a portion of the Wingham airport.

Some residents are unhappy with the answers provided by staff and council, which generally state that they cannot disclose information like the market value of said land but do not fully explain the reasons.

The Advance Times looked into the rules and regulations municipalities must follow, North Huron’s bylaws, and a report from the Ontario Ombudsman that provides more details.

Closed sessions, also called in-camera meetings, are not back-room deals made by crooked councillors, as some believe.

Closed Sessions/In-Camera Meetings

Municipal governments must follow the rules set out by the Ontario government in the Municipal Act, 2001.

The Municipal Act states the following:

A meeting or part of a meeting may be closed to the public if the subject matter being considered is:

the security of the property of the municipality or local board;

personal matters about an identifiable individual, including municipal or local board employees;

a proposed or pending acquisition or disposition of land by the municipality or local board;

labour relations or employee negotiations;

litigation or potential litigation, including matters before administrative tribunals affecting the municipality or local board;

advice that is subject to solicitor-client privilege, including communications necessary for that purpose;

a matter in respect of which a council, board, committee, or other body may hold a closed meeting under another act;

information explicitly supplied in confidence to the municipality or local board by Canada, a province or territory, or a Crown agency of any of them;

a trade secret or scientific, technical, commercial, financial, or labour relations information supplied in confidence to the municipality or local board, which, if disclosed, could reasonably be expected to prejudice significantly the competitive position or interfere significantly with the contractual or other negotiations of a person, group of persons, or organization;

a trade secret or scientific, technical, commercial, or financial information that belongs to the municipality or local board and has monetary value or potential monetary value; and/or

a position, plan, procedure, criteria, or instruction to be applied to any negotiations carried on or to be carried on by or on behalf of the municipality or local board.

A meeting or part of a meeting shall be closed to the public if the subject matter being considered is:

A request under the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, if the council, board, commission, or other body is the head of an institution for the purposes of that act; or

an ongoing investigation respecting the municipality, a local board, or a municipally-controlled corporation by the Ontario Ombudsman, a municipal Ombudsman, or meeting investigator.

A meeting of a council, local board or of a committee of either of them may be closed to the public if the following conditions are both satisfied:

the meeting is held for the purpose of educating or training the members; and

at the meeting, no member discusses or otherwise deals with any matter in a way that materially advances the business or decision-making of the council, local board, or committee.

Buying or Selling of Municipal Lands

The Ontario Ombudsman specifically addresses municipal land acquisition and/or disposal as follows:

“When a municipality is in the process of buying or selling municipal land, holding discussions about the land transaction in an open session could affect the municipality’s bargaining position or negotiation strategy,” the Ombudsman Ontario website stated. “The purpose of the acquisition or disposition of land exception is to protect the municipality’s bargaining position by permitting discussions to be held in closed session about a proposed or pending acquisition or disposition of land by a municipality.”

The Corporation of the Township of North Huron’s bylaw No. 25-2020 addresses the policy and procedures for the sale and disposition of land owned by the township.

This bylaw outlines the rules and regulations the township must adhere to, including applicable legislative requirements, as stated in ‘other terms and conditions – 7.2.’

“The township shall adhere to any applicable legislative requirements governing the disposition of land at all times and, where this policy is in conflict with the requirements of such legislation, the legislation shall supersede the provisions of this policy and any disposition will proceed in accordance with the legislated requirements.”

The Ombudsman of Ontario has investigated many complaints about municipalities holding closed sessions. These are outlined on their website and include winning and losing complaint results.

One example closely resembles the current situation in North Huron:

May 9, 2018

The Ombudsman reviewed a closed meeting held by council for the Town of Deep River relying on the acquisition or disposition of land exception to discuss a development proposal that involved disposition of municipal property. During the meeting, council was provided with the developer’s detailed business plan that identified the financial strategy the developer intended to pursue to ensure the project’s success. At the time of council’s discussion, negotiations with the developer were ongoing. The Ombudsman found that council was entitled to discuss this matter in closed session under the acquisition or disposition of land closed meeting exception.

To file a complaint with the Ontario Ombudsman, an online form is available at


Cory Bilyea, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wingham Advance Times