County’s meeting practices declared acceptable after investigation

County coun­cillors were not only cleared of wrongdoing in their meeting practices last month, they were also saluted by the meeting investigator for the way they operate.

“It’s nice to know you’re doing everything right,” War­den Joanne Ross-Zuj said in an interview.

Her only regret was that the complainant, Dennis Lever, of Puslinch Township, had not con­tacted her before going to the coun­ty’s meeting investi­gat­or. The bill was $1,880.

Lever said in his complaint, “In each situation, decisions were made while [council] was in camera. I believe that while the advice should have been in camera, but that the motion should have been read and voted on in a public session.

Lever also noted after the Feb. 26 meeting, county solicitor Hugh Guthrie came to the Aikensville pit Ontario Muni­cipal Board pre-hearing and stated the county would have the same issues list as Puslinch Township. After the March 26 council meeting, the warden announced the county would no longer be a party at the hearing.

Ross-Zuj said investigator Norm Gamble was “very thorough.”

Lever’s request stemmed from what Gamble called confusing circumstances over the Aikensville gravel pit ap­pli­cation in Puslinch Township. The county had at first seemed to favour the official plan amendment for it, and, on the recommen­dation of staff, had passed two of three bylaw readings to allow the pit.

Then, council received ad­di­­tional information that led it to change its mind. Council re­jected the application, but de­cided to not defend that decision, which was appealed by Capital Paving, to the OMB. Council held closed meetings on Feb. 26 and March 26 to consider legal issues. After each meeting, Ross-Zuj ex­plained what had happened in the closed session.

On March 27, Lever con­tacted Gamble, and on April 2 filed his request for an inves­tigation.

Gamble reported that he met with Ross-Zuj, Chief Adminis­trative Officer Scott Wilson, and Clerk Donna Van Wyck to review the request. County planner Gary Cousins, attended a portion of that meeting, which focussed on the history of the official plan amendment.

Lever was given the oppor­tunity to recommend differ­ent or additional interviews, and Gamble later met with planning chairman and councillor Walter Trachsel and councillor and former warden John Green.

On April 30, Cousins was interviewed a second time to discuss planning processes and delegated authority to staff.

Gamble interviewed county solicitor, Hugh Guthrie, plus spoke with “an experienced planning director, an experi­enced municipal clerk, as well as another meeting investi­gator.

He said in his report “The purpose of those inter­views was to determine what might be considered routine delegation of authority in OMB hear­ing participation and rep­resentation. He also discussed the meet­ings he had held with both parties.

“The purpose of these discussions was to determine if either party felt the investigator had either missed something or misunderstood some issue.”

Lever contended county coun­cil met improperly on the two dates, and that council met properly to provide direction to its solicitor but went beyond that in deter­mining a “county position” in regards to the pending OMB hearing.

Gamble was requested to de­termine if the Act was followed, and if motions were considered at those two meet­ings and to identify how councillors had voted.

Gamble said he saw it that one of his first considerations was if the Municipal Act was properly followed for the two meetings under investigation.

Another issue was if the act was contravened by decisions which were or were not made, while in a closed meeting.

He said the issue was difficult because he needed to consider “the confusion which re­sulted from two “inactions” by county council. The first came when third reading was not given to the [official plan] application bylaw and second, the failed motion to acquire re­sources to participate in the OMB hearing.

“Questions raised by Mr. Lever as to procedures, atten­dance and vote taking in closed meetings need also be con­sid­ered.”

Gamble decided, “It is the investigator’s opinion that they [councillors] are within the re­quirements of the Municipal Act. In fact it appears processes under the leadership of the county clerk are commendable in terms of meeting notice, agenda, minutes and records.”

He said a minor issue is the county should call a closed meeting just that, and not refer to it in the Latin, as in camera, which, he said, is “at times misunderstood by the public.”

He ruled the decisions taken at the meeting were also legal, but stated, “It is obvious there was a period of confusion among county councillors and administration, its solicitor, the public and the OMB. This was as a result of two failed initi­atives. The first was when the council failed to give third read­ing to a bylaw which would have resulted in the county defending its approval of the [official plan] amend­ment before the OMB.

“The second was the failed motion of the Nov. 27 council meeting which could also have the County participate actively in the OMB hearing.

Gamble concluded, “The result of the two ‘non deci­sions’ is that some may assume the county had decided to take the opposite position. That is by not approving the appli­ca­tion, it had decided to object to it. Or by deciding not to acquire resources to defend its position before the OMB hearing, it was not going to participate at all.”

He said council “was not clear at all as to its level of parti­cipation,” at the hearing. “However, there also is no evidence that a formal position was either taken or changed in the first closed meeting of Feb. 26.  At the March 26 meeting direction was given to the soli­citor by way of a motion and reported publicly. This position should have been clarified at an earlier point to avoid members of the public, OMB officials, and the county solicitor, assum­ing if the county was to be a ‘party’ to the hearing or other­wise.

He added confu­sion also came about as a result of plan­ning staff support for the amendment.

Gamble said the public report by the warden following a closed meeting is a good prac­tise and was appropriate. But, he said there is no evidence of a guideline for that. “This could leave a warden in an uncomfortable position de­ter­mining what should or shouldn’t be reported.”

He recommended the county, through its website and other ways, encourage and wel­come inquiries about meeting investigations and en­courage preliminary discus­sions with those contemplating a request.

He said the county should develop guidelines to assist the warden or chairman  in deter­mining closed meeting reports to open meetings.

He added council, staff, and the solicitor should review prac­tices for determining its position and role in partici­pating in tribunals such as the OMB, and further that the review include delegation of authority to staff and others in this determination.

He asked that the request and his report be placed on the county web site, and council agreed to that.