Numerous meetings and discussions were held improperly in closed session, closed to the public, according to a just-released report on in-camera Stratford city council meetings prepared by a specialist in municipal law.
The 85-page report from Tony Fleming of Cunningham, Swan, Carty, Little & Bonham LLP was provided to the City of Stratford and Get Concerned Stratford, a local citizens group that requested an investigation of city council's in-camera meetings. The group had initially asked for an investigation into 146 meetings, but the investigator limited the scope to 56 meetings. The meetings date from Jan. 1 2020 to June 14, 2021, a big enough sample size, the investigator said.
Fleming in his review indicated confusion amongst both city council and city staff with respect to the exceptions to the open meeting rules.
"To that end, we recommend that both staff and council seek and complete comprehensive training on the open meeting requirements, and that such training be regularly re-offered to incoming staff and council," Fleming's review of the report stated.
Fleming said the Municipal Act "permits us to provide recommendations resulting from our findings."
The investigator can't impose penalty.
Fleming said on several instances, city council selected the wrong 'open meeting exception ' and he would encourage council and staff to thoroughly consider which sections are most applicable so that the appropriate resolution can be adopted.
He also suggested council "consider whether they will actually receive advice from legal counsel or seek answers from legal counsel."
If that is not done, the report stated, the exception for receiving legal advice can't be relied upon. Relying on a negotiation exception requires council be in or about to enter negotiations and the purpose of the meeting is to establish the strategy and criteria for those negotiations, the report stated.
The report stated that under the municipal act, personal information must be central to discussion for the matter to be held in closed session.
Fleming said council, as much as possible, should stay within the "four corners of the topic" outlined in its motion to move into closed session. Several of the meetings reviewed went beyond a "natural flow of conversation", Fleming said in his report.
In some cases, he said, agendas used by council in closed session grouped multiple topics of discussion under a single agenda item, which Fleming said should be avoided.
"It undermines the public’s ability to scrutinize whether discussions are appropriate for closed session."
Fleming said one significant shortcoming – the motion adopted in open session – is corrected as a result of a previous report and commended the city for its efforts to incorporate the recommendations in that report.
Sharon Collingwood, a spokesperson for Get Concerned Stratford, said council played fast and loose with the rules.
In a media release, Collingwood said all the agenda items in all 56 reviewed meetings illegally hid the nature of the discussions from the public. Some 28 agenda items were illegally discussed in camera, she said, and should have been discussed in a public meeting.
Voting for the municipal election started Friday Oct. 14 and ends on Monday, Oct. 24. Collingwood had pushed for the report to be released before voting started.
“We’re glad that the report has come out before the end of voting,” said Collingwood. "We hope it will serve as a good starting point for improving council’s behaviour. We understand and fully support the idea that there must be occasional in-camera meetings to conduct some aspects of financial negotiations, but it’s essential for the city to conduct most of its business in public, if we are to get the best deal for our tax dollars.”