Nearly hidden away on pages 94 to 98 of the Council Agenda for February 3, 2015, under Correspondence 5f (Items for information purposes), item 5, is the report of André Marin, the Ombudsman of Ontario. (It starts on page 98 on their PDF document because the Agenda’s numbering doesn’t include the agenda outline itself.) If you want to read the entire report, go to https://thorold.civicweb.net/Documents/DocumentList.aspx?ID=3788 .
The long-awaited report will surely be a disappointment to those who lodged the complaint (at least this one). At least it should put an end to this particular question.
Mayor Luciani had announced to the newspapers after the election that he would be meeting with Councillors over lunch that month to discuss the upcoming council term. As a result, the Ombudsman’s report was triggered by a complaint alleging that “these gatherings constituted meetings of the new council that were closed to the public.”
The investigation, which included questions of the complainant(s), councillors, City staff, and the Mayor, shows that the Mayor met with councillors one on one over lunch and that “each discussion lasted about an hour and a half, and involved the Mayor obtaining feedback about council co-operation and what each councillor would like to achieve over the next four years.”
Citing a previous decision, the Ombudsman stated: “Members of council (or a committee) must come together for the purpose of exercising the power or authority of the council (or committee), or for the purpose of doing the groundwork necessary to exercise that power or authority.”
Further, he adds, “the concept of a legal quorum is also an important consideration.” This isn’t surprising, considering the previous point, because there is no power or authority without a quorum.
Furthermore, the Ombudsman commented: “To be clear, the Municipal Act, 2001 does not create an absolute prohibition against members of council discussing city business outside of chambers. It is a healthy thing in a democracy for government officials to share information” and that stifling this…“would have the effect of unnecessarily chilling speech.”
The Ontario Ombudsman’s decision was as follows:
“My review established that council for the City of Thorold did not contravene the Municipal Act, 2001 during individual discussions held between November 3 and 28, 2014.”
These discussions between members of council serve to remove misunderstandings and to allow for more complete discussion of matters than either council meetings or committees of the whole will allow. That way, council debate can be used to discuss the actual merits of each item, hopefully rather than getting into hugely circular arguments over misunderstood or misstated points.
It isn’t enjoyable for either councillors or the public to sit through countless hours of pointless argument, only to end up in an “Oh, well…never mind” moment when the misunderstanding is suddenly straightened out.
It’s healthy for the public to challenge the practices of their elected officials from time to time, just to keep them on the straight and narrow, and even if it costs a few dollars to do so. In this case, I agree with the Ombudsman’s report. Such exchanges between members of Council are a healthy way to make sure that all the information gets to the others and that it’s understood. Council procedure doesn’t allow the mover to go back and explain misunderstandings more than once, and the others get only one opportunity to speak to the question.
Mr. Marin ended with instructions to the City to make the report available to the public as soon as possible, but no later than the next council meeting, which is the one in which the report is contained. Why did they hide it away in correspondence for information purposes, which is generally passed in a block, never to be seen again? Wouldn’t they want the citizens of Thorold to know they did nothing wrong?
I have several ideas on that, but it wouldn’t be but pure speculation. If you want to know, you’ll have to ask them.