Time to break addiction to secret meetings

(Victoria, 19 December 2012) – Secret or in camera meetings are becoming too routine at city halls, school boards and police boards across the province with little if any oversight regarding the justifications for such meetings and no penalties for violating the statues that permit them, according to IntegrityBC.

The organization is calling on local B.C. councils and boards to take Toronto’s lead and institute an Open Data Policy as one check on the practice.

Toronto’s data policy allows citizens to verify meeting attendance, the total time councils meet in closed session, the number of items considered, and the number of closed sessions themselves.

The organization is also calling on the B.C. government to amend the Community Charter to set penalties if the privilege of holding in camera meetings is abused, allow for citizens to request an independent investigation into a meeting they believe was improperly held in camera, and to reduce the number of reasons that permit in camera meetings in the first place.

IntegrityBC noted that Toronto, whose 45 member city council oversees an annual budget of $9.4 billion and 50,000 employees, has met 12 times in camera in 2012 for less than 10 hours to discuss 24 items (to 2 November). The in camera sessions represent five per cent of the total time council has sat during this period.

In contrast, Central Saanich with a seven member council and an operating budget of $32.2 million has met 17 times in camera for at least nine hours and 15 minutes in 2012, according to a review of its council minutes.

“Ontario’s Ombudsman has gone so far as to propose jail time for councillors who hold unnecessary in camera meetings,” said IntegrityBC executive director Dermod Travis. “The B.C. government could at least start by putting some teeth into the law through penalties escalating from fines, removal from office to barring councillors from running for public office in the future.”

According to the Union of B.C. Municipalities there are four reasons that councils must go in camera and over a dozen reasons why they ‘may’ close a meeting.

“Many of those ‘maybe we should’ reasons provide too much latitude through wording which is often so opaque as to be devoid of any real meaning,” said Travis who pointed to just one to underline his point: “discussions with municipal officers and employees for the purposes of preparing an annual report.”

“It defies belief that such discussions would need to be held in camera,” said Travis.

Victoria’s city council recently held a series of in camera meetings to discuss budget proposals to keep the city’s property tax rate increase to 3.25 per cent. The proposals will now go to the public who will not benefit from the substance of the debate councillors had during those in camera sessions.

Victoria’s Police Board also held an in camera meeting to discuss the future of its automated licence-plate cameras after B.C.’s privacy commissioner raised concerns about the cameras.

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For more information:

Dermod Travis, Executive Director