Open meetings of City Council and transparent governance

The following was published in the Letters to the Editor section of the Westmount Independent (p24), on 2017-10-3, under the heading “Insist on definition of ‘private’ council meeting this election.”

To the Editor:

Observers of the process of governance by our elected municipal government in Westmount have remarked on the lack of debate at Council meetings, even on contentious issues. This is not surprising, as Westmount’s City Council holds a private meeting prior to the public meeting where thorny issues can be discussed and opinions aired. Other Quebec municipalities do the same.

But holding private meetings, I believe, clearly contravenes the Quebec Cities and Towns Act, C-19, which states (para. 322) “The sittings of the council shall be public.” Calling the private meeting a committee meeting, as Westmount and other cities do using terminology such as “committee of the whole”, or “general committee of council”, may help mayors and councillors feel that they are acting within the law. But this behaviour has been challenged; a court decision in Nebraska held that such attempts to circumvent the law were illegal.

Of course, we’re not in Nebraska! But it would help if Quebec’s law spelled out clearly what is necessary, as Ontario does in its City of Toronto Act. Here, “meeting” is defined (para. 189) as any regular, special or other meeting of city council, of the local board or of a committee of either of them. The act goes on to say that all these meetings, including committee meetings, shall be open to the public. Exceptions are clearly spelled out.

A google search will turn up other instances of what are often called “sunshine” or “open government” laws. Quoting from “A Quick Reference Guide to Oregon’s Public Meetings Law”: “Officials who attempt to keep their deliberations hidden from public scrutiny create cynicism, erode public trust and discourage involvement.” Conversely, “Government officials gain credibility by permitting citizens to observe their information-gathering and decision-making processes. Such understanding leads to greater trust in government by its citizens.”

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. I fear many will waffle, but as the City of Toronto Act demonstrates, it’s not difficult to clearly define the very limited set of cases where meetings need to be private.

If we value transparency and openness, we will need to vote for it!

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