Sep 21, 2020

Most municipalities in Ontario are required to hold open Council and Committee meetings. The public can be excluded only in limited circumstances where there is a compelling countervailing interest that outweighs the benefits of openness (e.g., safety concerns, formulating litigation or contractual negotiation strategies, obtaining legal advice). Transparency helps ensure that good decisions are made, that self-dealing and other conflicts of interest are avoided, and enhances accountability and public trust in the organization. A decade ago, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld a broad interpretation of this duty because of its importance: London (City) v. RSJ Holdings Inc., [2007] 2 SCR 588. Many regulators have similar provisions that apply to their Board or Council meetings. Even if there are no such provisions, many regulators have voluntarily adopted a similar approach in order to foster public confidence.

Recently the Ontario Ombudsman’s office has released its third edition of the Sunshine Law Handbook guiding organizations in applying transparency principles. Their top ten tips are as follows:

1. Know and follow the Municipal Act, 2001 and your procedure by-law’s open meeting requirements.

2. Make sure you have a procedure by-law that complies with the Municipal Act.

3. Give adequate advance public notice of all meetings, closed sessions and agenda items.

4. Do not add last-minute agenda items to closed sessions, except in truly urgent situations.

5. Open the meeting unless closure is specifically authorized under the Municipal Act and there is a real need to exclude the public.

6. Pick the right s. 239 exception before closing a meeting.

7. Pass a resolution in public that includes meaningful information about the issue to be considered – before closing the doors.

8. Record the meeting, including all resolutions and decisions, preferably using digital audio or video.

9. Do not hold a vote in closed session unless it is for a procedural matter or for giving directions to staff.

10. Report back publicly in open session about what occurred in closed session.

These tips, with appropriate modifications, may assist regulators in achieving maximum openness in their processes.