Group requests ombudsman investigate Bruce County on heels of report

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After a third independent investigation, and with 18 Bruce County meetings now deemed improperly closed to the public since 2016, Ontario’s ombudsman has been asked to take a close look at Bruce County’s practices.

Bruce County council received a Dec. 31 closed-meeting investigation report by the firm Aird & Berlis on Jan. 14 and asked staff to report back on the investigator’s recommendations and on closed meetings held over the past five years.

“Bruce County council acknowledges that our highest responsibility is to provide good governance for all stakeholders in an accountable and transparent manner,” recently elected Bruce County Warden Janice Jackson said in a county news release.

She said in an interview she has no issue with the new appeal to the ombudsman and noted doing so wouldn’t cost local taxpayers anything. The cost of the past three close-meeting investigations was more than $41,000.

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County staff confirmed this week that procedures were tightened last year to ensure subjects discussed in closed session are allowed to be dealt with behind closed doors and reporting is done as required. The reporting changes were informally in place “for some time.” The latest closed-meeting training was last February.

To the county’s credit, the investigator’s report noted the latest offences examined were committed in 2016 and 2017, before the county changed its “policies, practices and procedures and has taken other steps to enhance accountability and transparency.”

Southampton resident Laura Robinson, who filed the latest complaint about closed-door meetings on behalf of the Southampton Cultural Heritage Conservancy, is asking for a deeper investigation of county closed-door practices.

“We have asked the Ontario Ombudsman’s office’s in-depth investigations into complex and systemic issues team to investigate the same five years’ worth of closed meetings the county states it is reviewing,” a statement from Robinson said.

“That the county imagines it can investigate itself is a sad commentary on its understanding of transparency, objectivity and professional integrity.”

The heritage group has opposed county plans to demolish a former Southampton rectory — at one point to replace it with a nuclear innovation centre — and have been scrutinizing county closed meetings to support a separate court application in part to stop the demolition.

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Their court application alleges the county committed a breach of trust under the Charities Accounting Act by purchasing the rectory with a bequest from Bruce Krug to demolish it for a nuclear institute. The allegations have yet to be tested in court.

On Feb. 5 the heritage group will propose the dispute be settled through mediation.

The group has been calling for the archives to be digitized instead of expanding the building at the rectory’s expense. In 2019 the rectory was listed on the National Trust for Canada’s Top 10 Endangered Places.

Robinson also said the ombudsman should also examine of the absence of agendas and reports from the county website from meetings before 2019, that only minutes are left and some of those are missing.

Warden Jackson had no comment on the concerns about missing agendas and reports when reached as she headed out for meetings Friday. County spokesman Adam Ferguson confirmed recent changes to the website help the county meet new provincial accessibility requirements.

“We are working through these changes now to ensure all documents are in accessible formats. Documents that weren’t accessible are no longer posted, but are available upon request.”

The Special Ombudsman Response Team conducts in-depth investigations into complex and systemic issues, according to the Ombudsman Ontario office. A spokesperson declined to comment on specific complaints.

Robinson said she doesn’t trust councillors and staff, who have taken numerous closed meeting awareness workshops over the years already, to conduct themselves as they should. She said the county has not released minutes from the latest set of meetings found to have been improperly closed and it’s had the report for nearly a month.

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The closed-meeting investigator has no power to require disclosure of information from closed meetings. The county is required to pass a resolution saying how it will deal with the investigator’s report.

The closed-meeting investigator, Aird & Berlis, found all the county closed meetings complained of, on Sept. 8, 2016, March 2, 2017, April 6, 2017, May 4, 2017, Sept. 7, 2017 and Nov. 2, 2017, were improperly closed and reporting what happened during them failed to meet county requirements.

The investigator found council members went behind closed doors by improperly citing education or training of committee members five times and discussion of personal matters of an identifiable individual once.

The investigation found the county’s reporting out of closed meetings, as set out in its procedural bylaw and its closed-meeting procedures, were “deficient” and “sparse.”

For example, the investigator found the Sept. 8, 2016 executive committee meeting was closed contrary to the Municipal Act because it was not closed for educational purposes of members, as stated.

Further, “no information on what was actually discussed” was given after the fact, “even” to reiterate it was for purported educational purposes. It said staff direction was given when it wasn’t.

The report criticized the county’s former practice “to include a boilerplate statement” saying staff direction was given, whether or not it had. That was “inappropriate and derogates from the accountability and transparency” objectives of the Municipal Act and county procedural bylaw, the report said.

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The investigation found no fault with circulation of closed meeting minutes as alleged in the complaint but it found there was an improper vote during one of the meetings subject to the complaint, on Nov. 2, 2017.

The investigator reiterated recommendations contained in two prior closed-meeting investigations, from December 2019 and July 2020.

The investigator noted the county has changed its policies, practices and procedures to enhance accountability and transparency and noted Feb. 14, 2020 training for council and staff called “Closed Session Best Practices.”

But it reiterated the need to report out of closed session in “as accurate and detailed a manner as is reasonable” and while understanding steps in this regard have been taken, the county should “ensure its compliance” with this requirement.

Aird & Berlis’ other investigation report, from July 2020, found Bruce County’s executive committee held improper closed-door meetings seven times concerning Bruce Power and the Nuclear Innovation Institute, which it co-founded with the county — once in 2016 and the other six times in 2018.

An investigation report by Amberley Gavel Ltd in December 2019 found five closed-door meetings of the county museum committee between May 2018 and January 2019 in which reasons cited under the Municipal Act for going behind closed doors didn’t fit what occurred at the meetings, when Bruce Power and the Nuclear Innovation Institute were discussed at least some of the time.

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A 2014 closed-meeting investigation by Amberley Gavel found the county violated the Municipal Act by convening a series of closed meetings about the deep geological repository for low- and medium-level nuclear waste between 2009 and 2012. There were workshops about closed meetings in 2015 and 2016 following that report too, Robinson noted.

Bruce County has decided any future complaints about county closed meetings will be dealt with by Ontario’s ombudsman, effective Jan. 1.

Municipalities must retain either Ombudsman Ontario or another investigator to look into complaints about closed meetings. Aird & Berlis was delegated to investigate the latest complaint on behalf of the county-appointed Local Authority Services, a branch of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario.

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