Closed meeting reasoning falls short

Terrace city council's private meeting with the Qinhuangdao, Chinese local government, is raises valid questions and concern.

The Terrace Standard editorial of December 16, 2015) was critical of city council’s decision to  discuss its decision to strike a friendship agreement with the   Qinhuangdao, China local government, behind closed doors.

I agreed with the editorial and was particularly disturbed by the explanations given by a council member to readers commenting on the editorial on the newspaper’s web page.

In response to one reader’s question asking “What are they hiding!!” the councillor explained “that council does not decide what is or isn’t public, those decisions are made by staff based on the [Community] charter.”

This explanation is as disturbing as the closed meeting itself.

The guiding principle for council meetings is that they “must be open to the public, except as provided in this Division” [sec. 89(1)]. The Charter lists five subjects where “a council meeting must be closed to the public” [sec. 90(2)].  A friendly exchange agreement with a foreign municipality does not fall within the range of these five subjects.

The Charter specifies fifteen subjects for which council may, at its discretion, close a meeting to the public [sec. 90(1)]. The decision to make use of that power and close a council meeting to the public is not made by staff; it can only be made by council. The procedure is standard for municipal councils throughout the province. An example is found in Terrace Council Minutes of Nov. 9/15, resolution #428:

“MOVED/SECONDED to move In-Camera and close the meeting to the public pursuant to Division 3, Sections 90(1) (a) & (k) of the Community Charter (to discuss matters relating to personnel and negotiations for Municipal services). Carried Unanimously.”

This resolution identifies the Community Charter sections which allow council to exclude the public from the meeting, and it describes the nature of the subjects to be considered. The In-Camera resolution is worded in that manner because the Community Charter’s guiding principle declares that council is “democratically elected, autonomous, responsible, and accountable” [sec. 1(1)(a)].  Two councillors (mover and seconder) proposed, in an open meeting and for the record, that council exercise its option to meet behind closed doors as authorized by the Charter “to discuss matters relating to personnel and negotiations for Municipal services.” Council adopted the motion by unanimous vote and proceeded accordingly. Staff recorded the proceedings.

After council has dealt with a matter In-Camera, the decision is reported to an open meeting. An example of that step is found in Terrace Council Minutes of Dec. 14/15, resolution #485:

“MOVED/SECONDED that the December 9, 2015, In-Camera Finance, Personnel and Administration Component of the Committee of the Whole Report be adopted with the following recommendation….” Then they present the recommendation in detail.

There is nothing apparent in the Qinhuangdao friendship agreement requiring an in camera meeting.

The minutes of council’s November 30, 2015 meeting did include this sentence: “Mayor Leclerc reported on the signing of the Friendly Exchange Agreement with Qinhuangdao, China.”

A review of Terrace Council meeting minutes makes it abundantly clear that everyone at City Hall, council and staff, knows how to conduct and record closed meetings and the decisions arising from such meetings. The councillor’s initial response to a Terrace Standard reader’s comment (that council does not decide what is or isn’t public) is nonsense. As if that was not enough yet, this councillor proceeded to further muddy the waters with a response to a second reader’s comment, expanding on his initial flummery with a reference to Charter “section 90(n)” (sic) which bears no relevance to the issue raised in the editorial or the two readers’ comments.

The Qinhuangdao meeting where the friendly exchange  agreement was signed was a social gathering, amounting to little more than a public relations puff. Why pretend otherwise? Why mislead citizens?

Retired public sector administrator Andre Carrel lives in Terrace, B.C.