POWASSAN – An investigation into the lawfulness of council’s closed session meetings is underway.
The office of Ontario’s Ombudsman André Marin is currently looking into the details of a series of closed session meetings held by council in relation to the former Church of God property, located at the corner of Main Street and Valley View Drive.
The Ombudsman is an independent and impartial Officer of the Legislature. The Office of the Ombudsman was established in 1975 by the Government of Ontario to enhance the provincial government’s accountability to the public.
The Ombudsman’s Open Meeting Law Enforcement Team (OMLET) specializes in the investigation of closed meeting complaints and in assisting municipal officials and the public with questions about the “sunshine law.”
Pushing forward a new era of transparency in local government, Ontario’s “sunshine law” came into effect in 2008.
Since reaching a settlement with developer Arnold Keown in July as part of an Ontario Municipal Board hearing regarding the rezoning of the former church property to allow for a multi-residential development, council has been required to approve or deny a site plan.
In the weeks following the OMB hearing, council has had Keown’s property on its agenda multiple times for discussion in closed session. The lawfulness of those meetings is now in question.
“As a general rule, all meetings have to be held open to the public,” explained Linda Williamson, communications director for the Ombudsman’s office, noting there are very few exceptions to the rule.
The law requires public notice of meetings, and that all meetings be open to the public.
All or part of a municipal or local board meeting may be closed to the public if the subject of discussion deals with the security of the property of the municipality; personal matters about an identifiable individual, including municipal employees; a proposed or pending acquisition or disposition of land by the municipality; labour relations or employee negotiations; litigation or potential litigation; advice that is subject to solicitor-client privilege, including communications necessary for that purpose; and a matter in respect of which a council, board, committee or other body may hold a closed meeting under another Act.
In the preface of the Sunshine Law handbook, the Ombudsman states, “The spirit of the legislation can be summed up in six words: When in doubt, open the meeting.”
If the investigation finds council has been in violation of the Municipal Act, a full report of the investigation will be made public.
Although the Ombudsman doesn’t have the authority to impose a penalty on the Municipality if a violation has been determined, he will make official recommendations, which the public will also be made fully aware of.
“They (members of council) do have to answer to the electors at some point,” said Williamson.
Williamson also noted the discussion of council business outside of council meetings in itself is a violation of the Municipal Act, as it would be deemed an improper special meeting.
“Basically a meeting of council is defined by the advancing of the business of council,” she explained.
Specifically, Williamson cited a case investigated in the Township of Nipissing, which resulted in the Ombudsman determining an improper special meeting had been held by council in 2008.
According to the Ombudsman’s report, a meeting was conducted by telephone for the purpose of approving an invoice received earlier that day for a new fire truck. This meeting consisted of the mayor calling each individual councilor separately. Since the public couldn’t attend the telephone meeting, it was an unauthorized closed meeting of council.
Any person is permitted to file an anonymous complaint with the Ombudsman’s office.
Under the Ombudsman Act, the Ombudsman and his investigators have the power to make inquiries of any person they see fit, require the municipality to provide information, documents or anything they believe relates to the investigations, summon and examine witnesses under oath, including complainants, officers or employees of the municipality, and enter and inspect any premises the municipality occupies.
Mayor Peter McIsaac confirmed the Municipality has been made aware that a complaint has been filed.