|Over the course of three plus years serving as an elected official many items on Council's plate caught the attention of the general population. Most of those items have either been dealt with or fell out of fashion with the public as the business of the town moved forward. However, concern and misunderstanding about closed meetings, formerly in-camera sessions, seem to relentlessly haunt some residents. Be it through fear, paranoia or a lack of procedural knowledge, this term is often used to throw disdain and suspicion when there is nothing sinister or evil about closed meetings.|
There are a number of completely legitimate and understandable reasons for a meeting or portion of a meeting to be conducted behind closed doors, or maybe more appropriately, not open to the public. The MGA (Municipal Government Act) specifically outlines a number of reasons for closed meeting sessions as does FOIPP (the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act). The latter of these two pieces of provincial legislation is the most explicit in defining justification for closed sessions and is the legislation cited in motions enabling municipal governments to move into a closed session. As there will no doubt be questions regarding the legislation itself, it is only fitting that the pertinent clauses be included here.
- 24(1) The head of a public body may refuse to disclose information to an applicant if the disclosure could reasonably be expected to reveal
- (a) advice, proposals, recommendations, analyses or policy options developed by or for a public body or a member of the Executive Council,
- (b) consultations or deliberations involving
- (i) officers or employees of a public body,
- (ii) a member of the Executive Council, or
- (iii) the staff of a member of the Executive Council,
- (c) positions, plans, procedures, criteria or instructions developed for the purpose of contractual or other negotiations by or on behalf of the Government of Alberta or a public body, or considerations that relate to those negotiations,
- (d) plans relating to the management of personnel or the administration of a public body that have not yet been implemented,
- (e) the contents of draft legislation, regulations and orders of members of the Executive Council or the Lieutenant Governor in Council,
- (f) the contents of agendas or minutes of meetings
- (i) of the governing body of an agency, board, commission, corporation, office or other body that is designated as a public body in the regulations, or
- (ii) of a committee of a governing body referred to in subclause (i),
- (g) information, including the proposed plans, policies or projects of a public body, the disclosure of which could reasonably be expected to result in disclosure of a pending policy or budgetary decision, or
- (h) the contents of a formal research or audit report that in the opinion of the head of the public body is incomplete unless no progress has been made on the report for at least 3 years.
While this legislation is written in legal jargon, it is very clear in identifying items that must be discussed in a manner that protects the privacy of individuals, groups, corporations and the integrity of processes. Discussions regarding any individual (resident, staff, employee, contractor, Councillor) must be done in a manner that does not reveal any private information publicly. Contractual negotiations of all kinds whether realty or otherwise and all legal issues must be protected. Draft budgets, policies, documents and the legislative processes in the development of those types of town directives must also be protected. Premature disclosure of information in this world where social media is taking over public opinion threatens the integrity of the legislative process.
The bylaw establishing Governance Committees (Bylaw 2020-11 Committees of Council) states that the purpose of the committees is to provide recommendations and advice to Council and shall be made up of three Councillors. Issues dealt with at the Governance Committee table must be presented to Council for Council's discussion and decision. Until Council discusses and makes a decision on an issue, any recommendation or advice from a Governance Committee is just that, a recommendation or advice. This is no different than administration or a resident making a recommendation to Council. Governance Committees do not make decisions for Council, direct Council or direct the business of the Town. Only Council through motion at a Council Meeting (Regular or Special) give direction for the Town.
Since Governance Committees only make recommendations, any and all discussions at the committee level are merely drafts. Committee discussions regarding each business item is preliminary and does not supersede Council's opportunity or obligation to consider and deliberate the item. Until a committee presents an item to Council, four Council members are unaware of the item or the reasoning behind the recommendation. Committees recognize the need to protect the process and work of the committees ensuring that all of Council is apprised of the item and its background prior to being revealed to the public. If there is a reasonable expectation that the work of the committee will be made public before the committee presents the item and its background to Council, the committee is obliged to protect the integrity of the process and Council by holding their discussions in closed sessions.
The management of the business of the Town of Didsbury is just like the management of the business of any publicly traded corporation. There is a Board of Directors, in the case of a municipality, the Council. The Board of Directors (Council) has one employee, the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO). The job of the CAO is to facilitate the carrying out of the directives of the Board of Directors (Council). Just like the Board of Directors of any publicly traded corporation, Council will from time to time have to deal with issues that fall under the provisions of the FOIPP Act. The frequency and duration of those occurrences will vary with the agenda items being presented for Council's consideration.
There is no sinister, evil or malice intent behind holding meetings or portions of meetings in closed session. Council and Committees of Council are simply carrying out the stewardship of the Town in compliance with applicable legislation.