Ombud rejects two complaints about Norfolk council

Report says in-camera meetings were justified

Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dube has dismissed complaints alleging Norfolk council held two improper closed-door meetings this spring.

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Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dube has dismissed two complaints alleging Norfolk council held improper in-camera meetings this spring.

The complaints stem from closed-door meetings March 26 and April 2. At the time, council was in the process of hiring interim CAO Harry Schlange.

Dube interviewed Mayor Kristal Chopp, clerk Andy Grozelle and seven councillors. He also reviewed tapes of the council meetings as well as the minutes from the closed-door sessions.

Council went behind closed doors twice during the March 26 meeting. At the same meeting, council discussed the need to fill the CAO vacancy in open session.

“In closed session, council discussed the performance of identifiable staff members,” Dube said in his report. “Council also discussed a potential candidate for the position of interim CAO, including personal information about the candidate.

“Council met with the candidate and discussed the candidate’s suitability for the position. These discussions revealed information that went beyond professional information and fit within the personal matters exception in the Municipal Act.”

The in-camera session April 2 was a continuation of the in-camera discussion of March 26.

“During the closed session, a council member – along with the county solicitor – provided an update on negotiations regarding the employment contract with the preferred candidate for the interim CAO position and provided legal advice in answering questions of the committee,” Dube says in his report. “The meeting minutes and those we interviewed indicate that council discussed specific contractual terms and conditions during the meeting.

“This discussion fit within the personal matters exception.”

Dube also noted that council received legal advice during the April 2 session that is subject to the closed-door provisions of the Municipal Act.

“The purpose of this exception is to ensure that municipal officials can speak freely about legal advice without fear or disclosure,” Dube said.

As a housekeeping matter, Dube told county staff to include details in council resolutions to go in-camera that provide a general description of the subject matter.

Dube notes that “the Ontario Court of Appeal has found that resolutions to proceed in-camera should provide a general description of the matter to be discussed in a manner that maximizes the information available to the public while not undermining the reason for excluding the public.”

This is not the first time someone has complained to the Ombudsman’s Open Meeting Law Enforcement Team about procedures at Norfolk council.

In 2016, Dube took council to task for discussing contracts for legal services behind closed doors. Following an investigation, Dube said general matters related to the awarding of contracts should be discussed in open session.

Council awarded the four-year contracts – which were then worth about $400,000 annually — to law firms in Hamilton and Toronto. The resolution doing so was passed in open session but without discussion.

The Norfolk Law Association was displeased with how council handled the matter. A representative said at the time that Norfolk law firms have the expertise to provide municipal legal services and that they should have an opportunity to compete for this work.

In this instance, Norfolk council accepted Dube’s conclusions.

“I take his (Dube’s) findings very seriously,” then-Mayor Charlie Luke said. “There’s no question that – when there is a complaint and it is upheld – we have to sharpen up. We need to do better and we shall. We will learn from this. I take to heart what our ombudsman says. It’s just about tightening our procedures up a bit.”

Schlange served as Norfolk’s interim CAO until early September. He has since moved on to serve as the full-time CAO in the Town of Grimsby. His replacement is interim CAO Chris McQueen.

Provincial law requires municipal councils to go behind closed doors on subjects where public discussion might compromise the public interest.

Municipal councils go in-camera when discussing personnel issues, labour negotiations, personal matters about identifiable individuals, third-party trade secrets, the safety, security, acquisition and disposition of property, and legal advice that is subject to solicitor-client privilege.

MSonnenberg@postmedia.com

 

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