Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner and Ombudsman both spoke out this week in opposition to additional closed meeting exemptions proposed in Bill 68. Bill 68, as it is currently written, adds a number of new exemptions for when council meetings could go into closed session. Section 239 (2) of the Municipal Act allows a municipality to hold a meeting or part of a meeting behind closed doors if it conforms to one of a series of proscribed situations. Bill 68 would add four new exemptions to the seven that are currently contained in the Municipal Act, including:
(h) information explicitly supplied in confidence to the municipality or local board by Canada, a province or territory or Crown agency of any of them;
(i) a trade secret or scientific, technical, commercial, financial or labour relations information, supplied in confidence to the municipality or local board, which, if disclosed, could reasonably be expected to prejudice significantly the competitive position or interfere significantly with the contractual or other negotiations of a person, group of persons, or organization;
(j) a trade secret or scientific, technical, commercial or financial information that belongs to the municipality or local board and has monetary value or potential monetary value; or
(k) a position, plan, procedure, criteria or instruction to be applied to any negotiations carried on or to be carried on by or on behalf of the municipality or local board.
The Ombudsman and Commissioner’s opposition to these provisions runs as follows:
Information Access and Privacy Commissioner Brian Beamish:
The IPC is concerned that the proposed amendments in Bill 68 would broaden the circumstances in which councils and local boards may exclude the public from important decision-making, including by limiting access to information…. The proposed amendments will frustrate open and accountable government, inhibit open procurement practices, and limit the public’s existing right of access to records….Moreover, we have not been provided with sufficient information to suggest that the amendments are necessary to the effective operation of municipal councils and local bodies.
Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé:
The Information and Privacy Commissioner is the expert in access to information issues in Ontario’s municipal sector, and I fully support his submission relating to these proposed exceptions…. The public’s right to witness local government conduct business and make decisions should not be removed unless there are strong and compelling reasons to do so.
While AMCTO welcomes the flexibility that the additional closed meeting exemptions provide, we do have some concerns, especially with exemption “K.” In our submission on Bill 68 we recommended the government remove exemption “K” for the following reasons:
The problem with exemption “K” is that it is simply too broad. It is worded so loosely that it is prone to misuse and abuse. Over the past ten years municipalities have adapted to the open meeting regime in Ontario, and now conduct the vast majority of their business in public. If the government moves forward with exemption “K” it risks losing that momentum. As an organization that is committed to promoting ethics and accountability, we believe that closed meeting exemption “K” must be removed from Bill 68. It is too broad, too prone to abuse, and too likely to reduce the level of transparency that currently exists in municipalities.
Read our full submission here.