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Minister weighs toughening rules on loose-lipped councillors Add to ...

Community Minister Ida Chong says she’ll be receptive to B.C. municipalities if they decide to call for harsher fines or even the dismissal of elected officials who violate in-camera sections of the Community Charter.

The tougher rules are being proposed by Prince George to the annual convention of the Union of British Columbia Municipalities. A Prince George councillor was convicted under the B.C. Privacy Act and fined for leaking to the media in 2008 a confidential workplace harassment report about an RCMP detachment.

“If UBCM resolve they want any changes to Community Charter with respect to in-camera, I would certainly be required to entertain those ideas,” Ms. Chong said Monday in an interview.

That said, Ms. Chong noted that Premier Christy Clark believes in open government, so she thinks the in-camera option should be used only on rare occasions.

“I would be concerned if they wanted to add more things to the in-camera list because it would say they were wanting to be less open. I don’t think that’s the case.”

But the Prince George councillor at the centre of the case said he would be dismayed if the minister supported tougher measures in the charter, which outlines municipal powers.

The measures, Brian Skakun said, would be a setback for democracy.

“They are going to drive more things underground and elected officials will have no way to get things out,” said Mr. Skakun, a councillor since 2005.

“What’s at stake is elected officials’ ability to do their jobs and represent their constituents.”

He was fined $750 for his conviction, which is under appeal. He is also facing 13 possible sanctions from the city.

Mr. Skakun took note of news last week that Vancouver City Council, during a pair of in-camera meetings, agreed to give the Vancouver Playhouse theatre almost $1-million to help it through financial difficulties.

“I saw that story and thought, ‘What were they doing behind closed doors giving out money to an arts group?’ ”

Dan Rogers, the mayor of Prince George, said the city brought forward the resolutions to help other communities avert what Prince George went through in the Skakun case.

He said he isn’t against openness. “There’s a balance of transparency and openness, but a legal responsibility to protect personal information,” he said.

The city council’s aims are covered in four resolutions, which call for additional, tougher sanctions for elected officials who breach their sworn duty to respect confidentiality, including unspecified fines beyond the maximum $2,000. They could include outright disqualification from office.

Mr. Rogers said he expects the resolutions will garner enough support on the floor of the convention for their passage.

Ms. Chong noted the Community Charter says land, personnel and legal issues are generally in camera, but that such matters should generally be disclosed once resolved. “Eventually, in-camera matters do come out of camera to the public as a whole.”

She said she has taken note of the Prince George case for the “extreme amount of attention” it has attracted.

“These are complex issues,” Ms. Chong said. “I hope they can be debated on the principles of why certain things are deemed necessary in camera, as opposed to personalities.”

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