Even though Wellington North councillors were in the wrong, a report conducted by meeting investigator Norm Gamble amounted to little more than a soft talking to.
On July 14, council met with Gamble prior to the open session of council, when his report was handed to reporters with little comment. Just several months after appointing Gamble as its meeting investigator, township councillors found themselves the subject of one of those investigations – prompted by a complaint lodged by Kris Svela, of the Mount Forest Confederate.
That complaint came as a result of closed door discussions on April 30 with the municipality of Southgate and on May 7 with the municipality of West Grey – both regarding fringe development and financing for the Mount Forest Sportsplex.
Following receipt of a complaint form for a municipal investigation, a series of interviews were taken individually and jointly with Chief Administrative Officer and Clerk Lori Heinbuck, Treasurer John Jeffrey, Mayor Mike Broomhead, and councillors.
Gamble’s report stated “As there was a strong consensus of opinion with no conflicting opinions to the facts, it was felt no further interviews were deemed necessary.”
The April 30 meeting was attended by all Wellington North councillors and Jeffrey, and Southgate’s municipal council and four of its staff. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss municipal border fringe development and a pending funding agreement for the Sportsplex.
The May 7 meeting included the mayor, one councillor, the treasurer and an executive assistant, and three members of the council of West Grey. That meeting was also to discuss Wellington North’s wish for West Grey to contribute to the Sports complex and to discuss fringe development.
Comments in the report indicated the closed door meeting was an anomaly. Gamble’s findings suggested that unlike the April 30 meeting, the May 7 meeting did not have enough members for a quorum – and as such does not constitute a meeting of council.
“The date of April 30, 2008, is another matter,” Gamble wrote. He continued, “Those attending as well as the municipal CAO/Clerk who was not in attendance all now accept that the meeting of April 30 did constitute a meeting of the Wellington North municipal council.”
Gamble noted verbal notice was given by the mayor prior to the meeting, all members of council were in attendance, the meeting was held in a municipally owned building, notes of the meeting were kept and later made available to the public, the mayor assumed the presiding officer role, and “the public was refused entry by prior discussion with the mayor and/or councillors.
“There is therefore sufficient evidence to logically conclude that the meeting was in fact a council meeting of Wellington North council.
“Before concluding the obvious, that being the April 30 council meeting was for the most part devoid of proper procedures, it should be stated that this appears to be an anomaly to how this council and municipality work.”
Because of the lack of motions from the April 30 meeting, Gamble said it is difficult to determine if the intent to move into closed session was proper within the bounds of the Municipal Act. However, he wrote there were no conflicting opinions as to what discussion took place.
He stated moving in camera to discuss fringe development could be supported if it involves property, litigation, or solicitor advice. He added the matter of the Sports complex could also be supported going behind closed doors if it involves agreements or solicitor advice.
“The argument and evidence of those interviewed convinces us that there was no intent to neither move in camera improperly nor do anything improper to the provisions of the Municipal Act.”
Later Gamble stated “from what I gather they do things quite well. I haven’t heard general complaints that council always meets behind closed doors.”
One issue he faced making his decision is that the Municipal Act does not clearly define what a joint meeting entails.
If the meeting was regarding negotiations or agreements, there might be reason to go into a closed session, however because the proper procedures were not followed, there was no record if the meeting was ever officially closed.
“If they’d followed procedure, the record would show the meeting went behind closed doors [and why].”
He said the investigation showed that “While they didn’t come clean in terms of procedure, in terms of owning up to what happened, they were very good.”
The other issue which made his investigation simpler was that the complaint lodged was very specific about two particular meetings.
Gamble said his own experience is councils more often than not get into the wrong subject areas behind closed doors not by design, but by shifting discussions.
In this instance, he said that council remained on the same topic.
During the investigation, those interviewed “told the same story and had the same regrets.” He said he would have had more questions if there had been variations.
Gamble also believes the right intent was there when notes were taken during the meeting, but there were no official minutes. He added there was no attempt to hide that the meeting was being held.
However, he said there was no motion as to why the meeting went behind closed doors, the municipal clerk was not there, and no official minutes were taken.
The first recommendation is obvious. That is not to repeat the informal approach to the April 30 meeting.
His second is to use the pending update of the Wellington North procedural bylaw as an opportunity to review all applicable procedures and ensure staff and council are well aware of the importance of them.
The third recommendation in Gamble’s report is to use the report as it is intended and that is as a positive coaching piece.
The fourth recommendation is to publicly release, and as appropriate, discuss the report so as to reinforce the municipality’s reputation as an open and accessible municipality.