Q: What happens during the closed door meetings that sometimes happen before (and delay) City Council meetings? —Elizabeth
Goyette: We begin with the principle that the business of the public must be conducted in public. The democratic underpinning for this has to do with both the watchful inhibition of wrongdoing and the ethical promotion of accountability through transparency. Public exposure of government decision making increases public trust and decreases the invitation to impropriety.
Nonetheless, this fine principle can easily bump up against the practical realities of government decision making. A public meeting about a personal matter involving an identifiable individual may offend his or her right to privacy. A public meeting about a lawsuit may reveal information harmful to the case or offend solicitor-client privilege. The Ontario Municipal Act (Section 239.2) permits meetings or parts of meetings of Council or its Standing Committees to be closed to the public for situations like these, and the City of Peterborough’s procedural bylaw identifies nine such situations. The most recent of these was added last year, with some debate, having to do with education and training for Councillors.
Here’s what happens at a “closed session” meeting.
The meeting is held in a Committee Room, and begins in public or “open session,” followed by a vote of the Councillors to close the meeting to the public. Staff presentations frequently take place, and staff reports are printed on bright yellow paper to identify them as confidential; they are not publically distributed. The procedure for the meeting follows that of an “open session” meeting with the notable exception that formal voting by Councillors does not occur: a direction may be given to staff; a straw vote may be held to judge the will of the Councillors; or a consensus may be reached through discussion. The reason for the avoidance of a formal vote is optics—that is, the laudable avoidance of the perception of deal-making behind closed doors.
When the Councillors come out of the “closed session” they head into the “open session,” typically in the publically accessible Council Chambers. Public reports are distributed by the Clerk on the matters that have been agreed to: these are prepared and edited in advance to respect the confidentiality that brought them to the “closed session” in the first place. Councillors may speak to these reports in the “open session” before they are voted on, but rarely do because of the challenge of respecting the confidential elements of the matters they have just dealt with. The formal vote then takes place in public.
Many observers register surprise when they first come across this closed door process, because it appears to offend the highly desirable principle of transparency. In time, they come to see it as the necessary practice that it is: a means of permitting the City to protect its own corporate interests by meeting in private, but only when it would be harmful or prejudicial to those interests to do so in public.
David Goyette is the Executive Assistant to Peterborough Mayor Daryl Bennett. Email your burning questions for David about City Hall to firstname.lastname@example.org.