Budget time is a busy time for council and this week was just that for many members.
There is no suspension of other activities while the budget is being reviewed. On the weekend councillors were meeting the public, together with staff fielding questions and listening to concerns about the budget at several shopping malls. On Monday, both the Finance and Administration Committee (FAC) and the Planning and Environment Committee (PEC) were hard at it. On Tuesday all councillors, meeting as Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee (SPPC), were expected to receive public presentations on the budget until well into the evening. The next morning many of them were back to recommend what to cut and what to add to the budget as part of the Services Review Committee (SRC). It’s a hectic schedule.
So perhaps committee members were already a little tired when they decided at the FAC meeting to hold the public to ransom if someone exercises his democratic right to file a complaint with the provincial ombudsman about conducting the city’s business behind closed doors.
That was what had happened when council was pondering what to do about the occupiers in Victoria Park. The matter had been discussed and decisions made in camera. When two members of the public complained to the city’s appointed investigator, the ombudsman, council held another meeting, some of it in camera, to figure out how to respond to the investigator.
It’s clear that some of them are not comfortable with the actions they were involved in; otherwise, why would they go into yet another in camera huddle to talk about defending themselves?
The ombudsman is acting as an investigator. Under the Municipal Act, he or she investigates and prepares a report of findings and makes recommendations to council. The following excerpt from a letter to the Hamilton city clerk is typical:
In the future, all Council members should be vigilant in ensuring that in camera discussions come within the narrow exceptions outlined in s. 239 of the Act.
The investigator is not a judge and does not mete out penalties. He is there to advise the municipality about its obligation to act in an open, transparent, accountable manner. The report must be made public.
Nevertheless, following the in camera session, the FAC committee voted to bill the taxpayers should any councillor wish to retain counsel. At least one councillor, Ward 11’s Denise Brown, indicated that she would definitely take advantage of the opportunity, if only to get some advice. Not having been on council very long, she feels vulnerable, although the ombudsman himself made it clear on Twitter that individual councillors are not in any jeopardy; his role is to investigate and recommend on fixing problems.
When I first served on council, the Association of Municipalities of Ontario held seminars for incoming councillors. While there was no requirement to participate, those who were interested could pay the registration fees from their expense accounts; that's why that account existed, to assist the councillor in doing the job. Those seminars provided a lot of solid information from knowledgeable, experienced professionals. Similarly, we attended excellent orientation sessions run by city staff followed by informative detailed manuals and copies of legislation.
I’m sure the current council has received similar orientation and opportunities for learning the ropes, enough to know that they are not at personal risk just because they are required to answer a few questions if asked.
Recently, council affirmed its principles as part of its strategic plan. Included in those principles was a commitment to “community engagement, informing, educating and engaging citizens in a transparent and collaborative manner that promotes greater participation in municipal government” and “ensuring decisions are made in an accessible, transparent and accountable manner.”
But from the beginning, some members of council have resisted any cooperation with the ombudsman’s office, indignant that their behaviour or decisions could be questioned. Ward 9 Councillor Dale Henderson had been adamant when the ombudsman had requested information from the confidential meeting that he didn’t want to “tip our hand.”
“Let him go to Supreme Court,” was his position, although eventually cooler heads prevailed and the city clerk’s recommendation to provide the requested documents save that which was subject to client-solicitor privilege was adopted.
So far, only one councillor has indicated intention to seek out legal advice. Should more of her colleagues do likewise, the bills could mount rapidly. But will that information be made public in an "accessible, transparent and accountable manner”?