I wholeheartedly agree with Michael Shafter (Letter to the Editor, The Suburban, 2017-8-9) that we need more transparency at the municipal level (in fact, at all levels of government!). However, the law to this effect that he proposes be passed is probably unnecessary, as such a law already exists. But elected politicians as well as bureaucrats prefer to operate behind a veil of secrecy, fully aware that knowledge is power, and unwilling to share that power by disseminating knowledge.
The law that exists is the Quebec Cities and Towns Act, C-19, which requires (para. 114.2) that documents be available to any person applying to see them. Of course, there are exceptions, which are spelled out in A-2.1 – Act respecting Access to documents held by public bodies and the Protection of personal information. Bureaucrats have become very adept at figuring out ways to circumvent the intent of these laws, which is to make city governments transparent to the people that they are required to serve, the citizens.
While bureaucrats behaving like bureaucrats is to be expected, we should set higher standards for the behaviour of elected municipal councillors and mayors. I am referring to the legal requirement that all meetings of city councils be public (Quebec Cities and Towns Act, para. 322: “The sittings of the council shall be public.”) While this appears to be true on the surface, most if not all Quebec municipal councils have come up with a variety of strategies to circumvent this requirement, such as by having meetings of entities which they call “committee of the whole”, or “general committee of council” or similar. These entities typically meet privately before, and often after, the public council meeting.
Unfortunately, the Quebec legislation says nothing about committees having to meet in public. Other jurisdictions are much more specific. The City of Toronto Act, for example, defines “meeting” in para. 189 as any regular, special or other meeting of city council, of the local board or of a committee of either of them. It goes on to say that all meetings shall be open to the public. Exceptions are clearly spelled out.
A google search will find other examples of cities in Canada and the U.S. where councils and committees of council are required to hold public meetings. However, the example of the Quebec legislation shows that this is not universal.
And in the U.S., there have been legal challenges to attempts by city councils to circumvent rules requiring open meetings by calling them meetings of committees of the whole or general committee of council. This source refers to a court decision in Nebraska saying that such attempts are not allowed.
But as Mr. Shafter points out, the upcoming municipal elections in November of this year, provide us with an opportunity. I suggest that we, the voters, require that every candidate for municipal council or mayor publicly and clearly state their position on public meetings of council and of council committees. Many will waffle, but as the City of Toronto demonstrates, it’s not difficult to clearly define the very limited set of cases where meetings need to be private.
If we want transparency, we will need to vote for it!
- Talk to Westmount Rotary Club, 2017-6-14: Why we get old and die, and what to do about it
- A Solution to “Illegal” Stop Signs (Letter to the Editor, The Suburban, 2017-8-23)