Use the ombudsman
Given the tax increase the Town of Huntsville is facing, it is perplexing that councillors would opt to pay for a special investigator if a complaint about a closed session meeting is brought forth by one of its citizens.
The Municipal Act dictates the rare instances when your municipal councillors are allowed to meet under a veil of secrecy, removed from public scrutiny. Discussions about identifiable personnel or transaction details when selling a municipal property, for instance, may fall under the few permitted reasons for holding a closed session meeting and excluding the public.
But if a citizen is concerned that their council may have contravened open meeting legislation, he or she has the right to launch a complaint. How that complaint is investigated is unfortunately being left up to municipalities to decide. Municipalities can opt to go with the Ontario ombudsman’s office, which 191 municipalities have opted to do since the legislation was tweaked in 2008, or they can pay privately for the services of an investigator.
One can’t help but wonder why a municipality would opt to hire their own investigator and spend the funds to do so, if they can in good conscience honestly say that they are operating within the parameters of the open meeting law.
What’s more, should they be found in contravention of the law, unlike in some areas of the United States, there are no penal repercussions. In other words, councillors will not be fined and there is no punishment for purposely contravening open meeting legislation. The ombudsman’s office will simply report its finding and make recommendations for improvements.
It may also find a complaint to be unfounded and vexatious, and report it as such. Therefore it is difficult to understand why municipalities such as Huntsville would want to spend money and have complaints investigated by an appointed investigator. Such a move, in our mind, takes away from the impartiality of such an investigation because the investigator is being hired by the municipality.
The ombudsman’s office already has the function of closed session investigations under its belt and it is paid for by all of Ontario’s taxpayers.
Huntsville’s finance committee is currently chipping away at more than a nine percent projected levy increase. Not having to put money aside to pay an investigator, should a complaint arise from one of its citizens, is a good first step.
Ontarians are fortunate to have the services of the ombudsman’s office in this province.
Councillors should work hard at repressing their false sense of paranoia and refrain from spending hard-earned tax dollars where they’re not needed.