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Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Closed council meetings are routine. They can also be lightning rods for public ire

Victoria’s recent in camera decision drew backlash but closed door meetings are not unusual

By Shannon Waters
December 20, 2022
Municipal
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Closed council meetings are routine. They can also be lightning rods for public ire

Victoria’s recent in camera decision drew backlash but closed door meetings are not unusual

By Shannon Waters
Dec 20, 2022
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Municipal
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Closed council meetings are routine. They can also be lightning rods for public ire

Victoria’s recent in camera decision drew backlash but closed door meetings are not unusual

By Shannon Waters
December 20, 2022
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Closed council meetings are routine. They can also be lightning rods for public ire
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Most of the time, when municipal councils hold closed meetings, the proceedings receive little notice.

Closed proceedings—also known as “in camera”, which is Latin for “in chambers”—are a routine part of council operations to the point where many councils include them as part of the agenda for regular meetings. The Community Charter allows council meetings to be closed for specific reasons, giving council members the option to receive advice on sensitive matters and discuss them without the weight of the public eye bearing down on them.

But when issues with a high public profile are discussed behind closed doors, the public gaze can be drawn to procedural details in a much more direct way—as Victoria’s city council recently experienced.

The Missing Middle Housing Initiative was a major piece of the last council’s work in its final months, but that work wasn’t completed before the October election. Instead, after a public hearing that went on for over 18 hours, it deferred the final decision to this council.

On Dec. 8, Mayor Marianne Alto announced that the city’s current council had decided to proceed with the Missing Middle Housing Initiative “as if the current council members had heard the public hearing” that took place this summer. The decision was made during the closed portion of council’s Dec. 1 meeting, which also included legal advice about potential avenues for the policy.

The decision was a matter of procedure, Alto said, in order to sort out “the how” of council’s next steps on Missing Middle.

“It was not a decision of what or whether Missing Middle housing policies move forward or are amended, adapted or approved,” she said.

That explanation did not prevent public consternation over council’s decision to move ahead with the controversial policy—or suggestions that deciding its fate during a closed meeting was improper.

The kerfuffle was no surprise to Councillor Chris Coleman, who previously served six terms at city hall, and returned to council in October.

“Going in camera was the right thing to do for that but people are understandably still anxious-slash-angry-slash-enraged,” he told Capital Daily.

In camera meetings are “one of those funny but necessary components of governance,” Coleman said.

“I wasn't surprised that people would be upset [about the decision to go in camera],” he said. “But I think the public need to understand that this is due process, and we don't make final decisions in camera—that's where we do the necessary agreement to the information. We will then go out in public and make final decisions and they will be able to see that clearly.”

In the case of the Missing Middle, council will resume deliberations on the policy in full public view in the new year.

Public proceedings are the default

Holding open meetings is a key component of democracy and crucial to maintaining public trust in government, said David Black, a political communications expert at Royal Roads University.

“The very identity—not just the function but the very identity—of democracy depends on a robust dialogue and an open channel between those in positions of power and responsibility, and those who put them there,” he told Capital Daily.

But a world in which councils conducted all of their business in public would be a messy one, Black noted.

“Too much transparency and openness leads to paralysis—you can't have sensitive conversations in the public eye or else people are going to not share, not talk and governance becomes really quite dysfunctional,” he said. “Being constantly available and constantly talking about everything you're doing can be itself a disaster.”

Council proceedings are governed by the Community Charter, which sets out 19 types of discussions that “may or must” take place during closed meetings.

“Legal, land and labour issues” are some of the most frequent closed meeting topics, according to Coleman, but issues of public safety and negotiations with other levels of government are also on the list.

The reason for closing a meeting under the Community Charter must be announced ahead of the discussion (receiving “advice that is subject to solicitor-client privilege” was the reason given during the Dec. 1 meeting) and bylaws cannot be adopted behind closed doors.

Clear rules around the use of closed meetings are crucial because conducting public business in private can erode public trust, Black said.

“There's a certain understanding within government that closed meetings are a magnet for public suspicion and distrust—‘What are they doing in our name with the doors closed?’”

For councillors, it’s a delicate dance, one Victoria’s new council is still studying

“We have to learn, each of us, the fine line of what we can say in public and not,” Coun. Marg Gardiner told Capital Daily, noting that an inopportune comment during public proceedings could compromise in-camera discussions.

Like Coleman, Gardiner sees closed meetings as an unpopular but necessary part of council work.

“It is frustrating for the general public, no question, but there's also a need at particular times,” she said. “There will always have to be in camera for various reasons.”

Public trust is paramount

Councils make dozens of decisions every year during in-camera meetings and almost none receive the level of scrutiny the Missing Middle policy did.

“The local importance of the Missing Middle issue makes people even more sensitive, logically, to meetings that might be closed,” Black said.

Distrust of public institutions is also “notably high,” a reality Black believes puts pressure on public officials to be more open about the processes and discussions they participate in while not compromising closed proceedings.

For Coleman, the recent backlash is an indication of a need for council to rebuild trust with Victoria residents at a time when divisions are running deep.

“It's a sign that the system hasn't worked at trying to be seen to be trustworthy so that's the goal for this next term of council, is to regain public trust,” he said. “That doesn't mean we still won't go in camera because it is part of the process.”

Article Author's Profile Picture
Shannon Waters
Municipal affairs reporter
contact@capitaldaily.ca

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