Civic leaders get tutorial on meeting secrecy

Informal workshops, group emails may breach openness rules, B.C. Ombudsperson suggests

Many city hall watchers are irked by how often councils move meetings behind closed doors and wonder if all the secrecy is justified.

Now B.C. Ombudsperson Kim Carter has weighed in on the debate on in-camera meetings and suggests elected officials take greater care in deciding to hide their deliberations from public view.

Her new report suggests best practices for ensuring local government transparency and does not make specific findings or binding recommendations.

But Carter does suggest councils try to give more detail on why meetings are moved in camera, rather than just listing the section of the Community Charter that allows closed-door meetings on grounds such as legal advice or negotiations.

One concern is that there are the situations when the public never even hears a closed door meeting took place.

Councils are supposed to give 24 hours notice of an in-camera special meeting, but notice can be waived on a unanimous vote.

Carter’s report suggests that power be used very sparingly and one good policy is to let citizens sign up for email alerts when any special meeting is declared.

Another issue is what actually counts as a meeting.

Many councils hold informal meetings dubbed retreats, workshops or “short sleeve sessions” that Carter said should sometimes be considered meetings and be held in public unless otherwise justified.

“Just calling it a workshop or a short sleeve session doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a meeting,” she said in an interview.

Even discussions between council members via text message or group emails can start out as simple information sharing but cross the line into deliberations toward a future decision – meaning the same rules should apply.

“If you are conducting a meeting that should be open to the public in a way that cannot be open to the public, you need to reconsider and think about how you will make your meeting open,” Carter added.

Randy Helten, of the group Metro Van Watch, says excessive use of closed-door meetings is a serious concern for many civic observers.

“Definitely some improvements are needed,” he said. “This is a world-class city and region and we should have world-class policies for transparence and accountability.”

At the regional level, Helten noted Metro Vancouver is now live-streaming its board meetings online but urged that be extended to committees.

He noted TransLink’s board still makes all of its decisions behind closed doors despite a recent suggestion that may be reviewed.