AWARE Simcoe suggests another look at closed meetings investigator
County councillors have nothing to say
By Kate Harries AWARE Simcoe January 12 2012
Members of a Simcoe county council committee took no action on a request from AWARE Simcoe that they revisit a decision made at the last meeting of council to appoint a London consultant, rather than the Ontario Ombudsman as their closed meeting investigator.
In a January 3 letter addressed to council, AWARE Simcoe chair Don Morgan points out that issues of open government were central to the 2010 municipal election, with most candidates committing to openness and transparency and suggests that the closed meetings investigator appointment was a test of their commitment.
“The choice was between maintaining control and minimizing the possibility of embarrassment – or taking a stand for public accountability on decisions to have a discussion behind closed doors,” Morgan wrote.
A closed meetings investigator reviews the decision of a council or committee to meet in secret, when requested by a member of the public The services of the Ombudsman come at no cost to the local ratepayer, while the consultant charges $100 an hour plus a $1,000 retainer.
But cost was not the main issue Morgan raised. Rather, it was the motivation for choosing JGM Consulting. County clerk Brenda Clarke advised council that the feeling among clerks across Simcoe County was that the Ombudsman “may have reported more than was really necessary.”
Unknown to AWARE Simcoe observers at the meeting, Carey deGorter, Barrie’s depity clerk and president of the Simcoe County Clerks and Treasurers Association, had written to county councillors on November 18, urging against retaining the Ombudsman.
The letter accuses the Ombudsman of using “provocative” language and a more wide-ranging interpretation of what meetings are open to investigation.
Of greater concern, the association advises that it is preferable for council to retain control over the process, “to prepare the terms of engagement.”
Morgan points out that, as it is usually on the advice of a clerk or CAO that a council goes in camera, “we question whether it is appropriate for the Simcoe County clerks and treasurers association to be lobbying on the issue of who will provide oversight with regard to decisions in which their members play such a pivotal role.”
And, he adds: “We also question what occurred at the Nov. 27 meeting. In effect, the advice of the clerks and treasurers that the Ombudsman not be the closed meetings investigator was given behind closed doors.
“The information was disclosed subsequently on request to the clerk’s office, but the fact remains that information was withheld from the public until after a decision was made on an issue of major public interest for taxpayers and residents.
“That’s why we are, belatedly, drawing our concerns to your attention, in the hope that you will see fit to revisit this decision with the interests of the public in mind.”