Kings County councillor frustrated with process during in-camera minute debate

Kirk Starratt
Published on June 19, 2014

Jim Winsor.

©Kirk Starratt

“This process is terrible,” Coun. Jim Winsor said of the handling of a committee of the whole agenda item regarding the keeping of in-camera minutes at Kings County council.

“Your process is terrible, thank you,” Coun. Bob Best was heard to remark before Warden Diana Brothers brought down her gavel, calling for order.

Winsor brought forward an item regarding the keeping of in-camera minutes at the June 17 committee of the whole session. Earlier in the proceedings, chief administrative officer Tom MacEwan said municipal advisor Mark Peck from the provincial Department of Municipal Affairs would be arranging a workshop for councillors to be held in late July or early August on Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy and in-camera minutes.

When Winsor’s matter came up, MacEwan said he had reviewed Winsor’s motion and received legal advice. The Municipal Government Act doesn’t require municipalities to keep minutes of in-camera or closed-door meetings of council.

“Point of order,” Winsor said. “I haven’t put the motion on the floor. He’s speaking to a motion I haven’t made.”

Winsor made the motion, which was seconded by Coun. Pauline Raven, to direct the chief administrator to bring forward policy and procedures and to immediately arrange for the taking of minutes effective at the next council session. Following debate, the motion was defeated.

MacEwan said whether or not to keep in-camera minutes is a decision of council, but Winsor seemed to be suggesting that council is required to do so.

“I don’t agree that the MGA (Municipal Government Act) provides the direction or states that,” MacEwan said.

He pointed out that no decisions can be made in-camera but direction could be given to the chief administrator or solicitor. MacEwan said the municipality has no bylaw regarding the keeping of in-camera minutes but he would arrange for minutes to be kept if council decides so following the workshop. Not all municipalities keep in-camera minutes.

Municipal solicitor Andrew Montgomery concurred with MacEwan that, from a strictly legal standpoint, council has no requirement to keep such minutes.

Winsor said he was frustrated that he put forward a motion that he wasn’t yet able to speak to and it “doesn’t seem right” that he couldn’t speak to it before the floor debates it.

“I feel I’m being denied a privilege here,” Winsor said.

Warden Diana Brothers said she had called Winsor and asked him to withdraw the motion based on the conversation with Municipal Affairs.

Winsor said he didn’t bring the motion to council in haste: he did so following a “prolonged period of frustration.” He said he brought the matter forward for practical reasons.

“This is an ongoing issue we need to recognize,” he said. “We must admit that we have something to talk about here.”

Council has “had hours of debate on issues” in-camera and some debate has been “misconstrued after the fact”, which has caused council “some grief.”

Brothers said there is no proof of information from in-camera sessions being misunderstood.

Winsor said it’s not about making the record public: it’s about accountability to the public.

“I think there’s an accountability matter here that we have to pay attention to,” he said.

Raven said the Halifax Regional Municipality keeps in-camera minutes and she thinks they do so because they want to be accountable.

“Is it better for this council to be as transparent as we can be or as secretive as the rules allow?” she said. “Is that who we want to be defined as? We’re not a business, we’re not a law firm, we’re a local government.”

MacEwan sai, if minutes were kept, they wouldn’t necessarily ever be made public. He said it’s a liability to those who make information from in-camera sessions public.

The Municipal Government Act allows councils to debate a limited number of matters matters in-camera, such as personnel matters, contract and land negotiations and legal matters.