Ontario Ombudsman André Marin says he has had mixed results investigating complaints into closed-door meetings held by municipal councils, with most towns and cities understanding the importance of keeping these sessions open to the public but others "blatantly" defying the intervention by his office.
"They do it because they can," Mr. Marin said at a news conference today at the Ontario legislature, where he released his 2008 annual report. "The law allows them to pay for their own lapdog investigator instead of a watchdog, meaning there's no real standard of transparency being enforced across the province. I fail to see the value in this."
The Ombudsman's office was given new powers on Jan. 1, 2008 to investigate complaints by the public into closed-door council meetings, with the exception of those municipalities that have appointed their own investigation. Municipal councils are required to hold their meetings in public under the Ontario Municipal Act.
The majority of the complaints were resolved quickly, the report says, because many municipal councils were simply unaware of the requirement to hold their meetings in public, even though they have been required to do so for well over a century.
But Mr. Marin says in his report that the fact some municipalities hire their own investigators has led to a "patchwork" system that underscores a weakness in the present enforcement system. There are no uniform standards for investigations, the report says. If a municipality does not like the approach taken by an investigator, it can simply hire another, it adds.
The report singles out the Township of Emo in western Ontario as one that best illustrates the negative attitude by some municipal councils into oversight of their meetings. The complaint involved a closed-door meeting in April, 2008 into plans to develop a controversial abattoir in the municipality.
An investigation by the Ombudsman's office did not find that the Emo council had met in secret with the company planning to develop the abattoir, as originally alleged. However, the office found that the council had contravened the Municipal Act. The office also urged the council to revoke a fee of $500 that it required members of the public to pay to launch a complaint.
Not only did the Emo council reject the Ombudsman's recommendations, it hired its own investigator to replace the Ombudsman.
"Taken in its best light, the conduct of Emo council reflects basic ignorance of the purpose behind the open meeting requirements," the report says. "At its worst, it appears to be an ill-conceived and deliberate attempt to flout the law and manipulate it to serve its own ends."
The Ombudsman's office has received 127 complaints and inquiries into municipal council meetings. Of these, 77 fell under the authority of the office.
This is Mr. Marin's fourth annual report. The area where his office has yet to make progress, he said, is over municipalities, universities, school boards and hospitals: known as the MUSH sector. He said Ontario still lags far behind the rest of the country in not allowing his office to have oversight over these areas, which account for the bulk of government spending.
Complaints about hospitals and long-term care homes have almost doubled in the past year, Mr. Marin said.
"And while we do have some major health-related investigations on the go, including into government's monitoring of long-term care homes, we can only do that by dancing on the edge of our jurisdiction."Report Typo/Error