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Grimsby's closed session meeting contravened Municipal Act: Ontario's ombudsman

Ontario’s ombudsman has some recommendations for a Niagara town.

In a letter council is set to receive on Monday, Dec. 4, Ontario’s ombudsman, Paul Dubé, said he received a complaint about a closed session meeting held in February.

The resolution that council made coming out of the closed session was regarding supporting women in politics.

“Therefore it be resolved that the Town of Grimsby expresses its support for women in politics and their right to participate in a political environment that is free from misogyny and harassment, and where everyone feels equal,” said the motion.

The complaint that the ombudsman received alleges that the discussion did not appear to fit within the cited exceptions for personal matters about an identifiable individual and litigation or potential litigation.

In his ruling, Dubé agreed with the town that hosting the meeting in a closed session was allowed, but that the town contravened the Municipal Act by “failing to provide sufficient information about the general topic of discussion in its resolution to proceed into closed session.”

The discussion in question lasted about an hour and, according to Dubé, pertained to the conduct of one particular individual, and how to respond to said conduct.

Because the matter was about one person’s conduct, Dubé said that is enough for them to go into a closed session.

“In a 2018 report to the Town of Amherstburg, I found that council’s discussion fit within the exception because it was about identified individuals’ conduct and allegations that they acted improperly, and council members expressed their opinions about the alleged conduct,” his report said. “Similarly, in the present case, while in camera, council discussed and scrutinized an individual’s conduct. Accordingly, the discussion fit within the exception for personal matters about an identifiable individual.”

However, Dubé felt the discussion did not fit the requirements of the litigation or potential litigation exception, as there was no ongoing litigation against the individual and they only briefly discussed seeking legal advice.

Additionally, Dubé was unsatisfied at the lack of public clarity on what the closed session item was about prior to the session happening.

“I have previously determined that merely citing the open meeting exception(s) that council is relying on to hold a closed meeting generally will not meet the requirement set out in (the Municipal Act),” he said. “In this case, council cited the exceptions from the Municipal Act, 2001, that it was relying upon to move in camera, but did not provide any further information about the topic of discussion. While I appreciate that this was a sensitive matter and council did not wish to give any identifying information about the individual in question, it should nevertheless have ensured that the resolution to enter into closed session included a brief description of the subject matter to be considered in camera.”

At the end of his report, Dubé said council should provide a general description of matters to be discussed in closed sessions.

In accordance with the Municipal Act, council is required to pass a resolution stating how it intends to respond to Dubé’s letter.

Abby Green, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Grimsby Lincoln News