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Wednesday, 21 October 2015

What is a Meeting? Municipal Councils and the Ontario Ombudsman

Andrew Sancton, Professor of Political Science at the University of Western Ontario

Municipal councils are generally required to hold their meetings in public. In order to meet these requirements they need to know the definition of a “meeting”. In Ontario in recent years there has been much confusion about this. Similar confusion might well spread to other provinces.

Three things to know about the definition of meetings of municipal councils:

1. Statutory definitions of such meetings in Canadian provinces only refer to official meetings, but judges have extended the definition to include less formal “retreats” and “strategy sessions” where councillors “materially advance” the course of municipal business.  In certain specified circumstances councils are allowed to meet in camera.

2. “Sunshine” laws in many US states prevent state legislators and municipal councillors from discussing public business with each other outside formal meetings.

3. The Ontario ombudsman has applied the spirit of American “sunshine” to his rulings about informal meetings of municipal councillors in Ontario.

Three myths about the Ontario ombudsman’s definition of meetings:

Myth #1: The ombudsman must have had some Canadian statutory or judicial bases for his decisions that groups of municipal councillors meeting together to “lay the groundwork necessary” for the advancement of municipal business are conducting illegally closed municipal meetings.

The Reality: There is no statutory or judicial basis for the ombudsman’s position on this matter.

Myth #2: What the ombudsman decides on this issue doesn’t matter because he has no authority to invalidate municipal actions or to impose penalties and his decisions only apply in Ontario.

The Reality: Municipal councillors who have been condemned by the ombudsman have suffered loss of reputation and, in some significant cases, have been unable to be re-elected.  Others have become very nervous about any conversations with their colleagues. Councillors in other provinces wonder if similar rulings might one day be made in their provinces. 

Myth #3:  We would all be better off if local politicians held all their discussions about public business in public.

The Reality: Highly debatable!  If this is true, should we not extend the same logic to meetings of federal and provincial cabinets and party caucuses?

Further Reading: 

Sancton, A. (2015), What is a meeting? Municipal councils and the Ontario ombudsman. Canadian Public Administration, 58: 426–443

Andrew Sancton is the author of numerous books and articles about municipal politics and institutions, most recently Canadian Local Government: An Urban Perspective 2nd edn (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2015)

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