Investigation into Illegal Closed Council Meetings
Under the Municipal Act, council meetings may only be closed under certain conditions:
The security of property of the municipality or local board;
Personal matters about an identifiable individual, including employees;
A proposed or pending acquisition or disposition of land;
Labour relations or employee negotiations;
Litigation or potential litigation
Advice that is subject to solicitor-client privilege;
A matter authorized by another provincial statute;
If Council is the “Head” and the subject matter relates to a request under the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act; or
The meeting is held for educating and training and no member discusses or deals with a matter in a way that materially advances the business or decision-making of the council or local board.”
Much research has already been posted, particularly the history of the attempts to sell Don Maynard Park.
The recent investigation of complaints of illegal closed council meetings engaged several layers of bureaucracy. The Ombudsman’s authority to investigate is delegated to “LAS” (Local Authority Services), a service for Ontario municipal governments which was assigned the closed council investigations for Mississippi Mills. Then LAS delegated the investigation to a private firm called Amberley Gavel Ltd. Four levels of bureaucracy (Ombudsman, LAS, Amberley Gavel and the Municipality) were involved in this “to save money.” Council meetings, closed or public, must be advertised in advance to the public.
The provincial laws need more teeth: note that although the investigation found a number of illegal closed meetings (and only investigated those that received complaints), not a thing changed and no sanctions were imposed. At the meeting where the results of the investigation were – briefly – aired, Councillor McCubbin asked the Clerk, Shawna Stone, if any decisions would therefore be changed as a result, and the Clerk replied that they would not. The November 1, 2016 “working group” meeting in particular concerned Don Maynard Park: not a single elected Almonte councillor took part in that decision.
When the bike lanes were installed in May 2017 against the protest of most affected residents, it seemed that they were very rarely used. Some motorists like them because they could drive faster down Ottawa Street.
Any contrary information at the so-called public meeting was not allowed to be heard. For example, the Ministry of Transportation strongly urged communities to spend a lot of time “selling” such lanes in cities, and getting buy-in and reciprocal benefits from affected homeowners. That was not the way things unfolded in Almonte. Residents were not allowed to present any argument against them. The decision was made by a group called the “Active Transportation Committee” that are, in practice, the “Bicycle Committee:” most members are also avid cycling hobbyists.
Residents along affected streets were never consulted.
I decided that once school came back in, I would run a study to see how many cyclists actually use the lanes. We set up a camera to capture how many cyclists there were, and whether they used the lanes properly or not. I thought I’d compare the number to the number of people walking along the cracked and spray-painted narrow sidewalks, to get an idea whether this Council had its priorities straight.
I am not against cycling. I believe that there should be a posted safe cycling route instead; I have spoken with avid cyclists who agree. However, I would never dream of imposing it without consultation with affected residents. It is a very serious matter to take away parking from residents without their agreement. You do not build bridges in your community that way.
My study took place over about 3 weeks in September and October of 2017. It is the only data that I have seen on the subject in a year; the municipality and active transportation committee published nothing.
The maximum number of cyclists recorded in a day was 6. The maximum number of pedestrians was 109.
There have been conflicts of interest related to the Heritage Conservation District that were discovered by PRATAC’s investigation: some members of Council voted on decisions affecting property that they or a family member owned in the area, potentially receiving enhanced benefits as a result.
An example of one attempt at the suppression of free speech in the public interest is something called a “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.” This Council made a decision to fund one in a closed council meeting. Since the lawsuit was a private action by two individuals on the Council, why did this Council agree to fund them? Given that the two who launched the personal suit could not vote on it, at least 5 of the remaining 9 council had to have agreed to use your money to help them. Did the closed council meeting in meet the criteria listed above? Remember, this was not a lawsuit brought against the council or one that the municipality started under its authority. Justice Pedlar ruled that municipalities cannot sue for defamation Montague (Township) v. Page, 2006 CanLII 2192 (ON SC)
There were other concerns, too many to list here. The most worrying to me have been the attacks on democracy: appointing a councillor instead of selecting the next person elected; attempts to suppress free speech, public comment, the press and association. Did you know that the Procedural Bylaw of the 2014-2018 council does not permit even the media to record a PUBLIC council meeting for the record? Journalist Ashley Kulp commented on the issues of the past few years and was hopeful that the communications consultant report would provide solutions: Communication is Key Ashley Kulp Aug 3 2017
Mississippi Mills does not have an Integrity Commissioner, but will for 2019.
Without a history of regular financial reports to Council from the municipal administration and departments, it is hard to say how taxes will go. The debt is currently about $4 million more than the $18 million that the ex-mayor claimed it would be at the end of 2018.
Council said that the reserves would be built up so much by 2018 that we could borrow from ourselves. The mayor wrote “…if Public Works needs $300,000 for a new piece of heavy equipment, the money comes from reserves.” However, at their last regular meeting, the 2014-2018 Council voted to borrow nearly another million dollars to buy a grader, a fire truck and other equipment. When asked by a councillor if reserves could fund it instead, the staff response was “no.” Reserves have dropped below what they were supposed to have been at this point.
Where did things go wrong? Well, mismanaged projects and programs headed and directed by council have cost far more than expected; in the worst case, the Pakenham library renovation project alone was approximately 100% over its budget (final figures have not been reported at this writing). On some projects, milestone and cost updates were so late that potential corrections could not help. A few projects came in so much under budget that the costing process seemed odd.
Most big-ticket projects were managed by small groups of councillors who made the spending decisions; the ill-fated library renovation and Gemmill Park projects are examples. Meanwhile, little investment of time in real public consultation was made in the Official Plan review and ill-fated park sales proposals. How much time and money were spent on ideas like paving the recreational trail for the imaginary hundreds who “commute” (when no funds were allocated – or likely – for upkeep)? Development charges earmarked for Almonte growth were spent elsewhere. The downtown infrastructure replacement project seemed to have been dropped except for end-phase benches. The result of the lack of public consultation and poor decision-making is that the Municipality has incurred far too much in legal costs. Is there a contingent liability fund to pay for these mistakes? Or did it cost us some basic services?
The Long Term Financial Plan apparently did not account for things like the ever-rising costs of energy, interest rates, salaries, benefits and shaky management. Residential property taxes and sky-high development charges can no longer remain the only sources of revenue.
I would like to see taxes as low as possible. With so little fiscal information in the face of some obvious misadventures, it will be a challenge. I think that a fiscally prudent back-to-basics approach will be required.