Ombudsman can investigate secrecy complaints in municipalities

As of the new year, most of Wellington County’s municipalities will have a meeting investigator in place.
That investigator can be called upon by citizens who believe that their local councils have been meeting secretly and illegally.
Under the Municipal Act, councils have to operate in open sessions except for some very narrow restrictions. They can meet behind closed doors to discuss legal matters such as lawsuits, for the sale or purchase of property, or when discussing identifiable em­ploy­ees and their job per­for­mances.
Most municipalities in Wellington County have made appointments to fill the role. Wellington County chose a former Chief Administrative Officer Norm Gamble, of Grey County, to fill the role. Warden John Green said the only snag might be that Gamble, who still is involved in government at various levels, might face a conflict.
Green said he was checking on that possibility, but expected that Gamble would be the appointee for Wellington.
The county also offered to share Gamble’s services with its lower tier municipalities, and many of those have agreed. Mapleton, Guelph-Eramosa, Puslinch, Centre Wellington, and Minto have all formally appointed Gamble. Erin has chosen to use LAS, a private service.
Those municipalities who have not formally chosen an investigator will not be left out in the cold.
Ontario Om­budsman Andre Marin will be able to inves­tigate public com­plaints about closed-door meetings after the changes to the Municipal Act took effect on New Year’s Day.
Marin is the default inves­tigator for complaints about all municipal meetings that are held behind closed doors after Jan. 1 – except in those muni­cipalities that have decided to appoint their own investigators.
He noted that municipalities have not moved quickly in making the appointments, but a check of the Ombudsman’s website shows that most appointments from Wellington County are not yet listed.
“As of today, only 72 of Ontario’s 445 municipalities have informed us that they have chosen their own inves­tigator,” said Marin late last month. “All others will fall under my office’s jurisdiction as of next week.
“This means that in the New Year, most Ontarians will be able to complain to us about any municipal meeting they feel was inappropriately closed to the public,” he said. “It’s the start of a new era of local accountability in Ontario, and we’re eager to let people know about it.”
New provisions to the Municipal Act subject all muni­cipal councils and most boards and committees to an inves­tigation if their members meet behind closed doors, unless specific exceptions set out in the act are met. As with all complaints handled by the Ombudsman regarding provin­cial government organizations, the Ombudsman’s services in this new area of jurisdiction will be free of charge.
There are fees for each of the appointed investigators.
Using the Ombudsman’s office, there is no charge to com­­plain­ants or municipalities, and the Ombudsman’s findings and recommendations will be made public.
The changes represent the first expansion of the Om­buds­man’s mandate (into munici­palities, universities, school boards, hospitals and long-term care facilities, children’s aid societies, etc.) in 32 years, although some 80% of provin­cial spending goes to this sec­tor. Ontario lags behind all other provinces in allowing ombudsman oversight of these areas, and Marin’s office has turned away hundreds of com­plaints about that sector every year.
Municipalities may still choose to appoint their own investigators at any time after Jan. 1, but any complaints made prior to such appoint­ments must be handled by the Ombudsman.
More information on the new legislative changes – in­cluding frequently asked questions, a list of munici­pali­ties that have chosen investiga­tors, and a new complaint form is available on at­buds­­