Strike A Blow For Openness

Incident of the 'quasi' committee raises questions of principle

Editorial
Cape Breton Post
Sat., May 21, 2005

THE ISSUE: COUNCIL HAS TO GUARD ITS VIRTUE

SYDNEY - Late last month when Mayor John Morgan was coming under public attack from members of his council for various alleged failings, he resisted demands for a closed meeting to hash things out. Morgan insisted that the Municipal Government Act doesn't allow meetings of council with the public excluded, except for discussion of a specific topics listed in the act such as contract and personnel matters. For his critics and the just plain cynical, this could easily have been interpreted as tactics more than principle on Morgan's part, or simply as another instance of the picky legalism that some fault him for.

Be that as it may, the mayor happens to be right in applying a strict reading to an act which is written as a forceful instrument for open, transparent and accountable local government. It is an important issue to be clear about, and it is apparent from an incident Tuesday that councillors at least and possibly municipal staff could do with a refresher on the letter and spirit of open municipal government in Nova Scotia.

Two members of the public, a Cape Breton Post reporter and a representative of the Sierra Club environmental group, showed up to attend a posted meeting of something called the remediation committee of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, consisting of five councillors chaired by Vince Hall. The two interlopers were booted out of the meeting with officials of Sydney Tar Ponds Agency, who according to the publicly posted agenda were to brief the councillors on the coffer dam project and on a report on future use of the cleanup site.

Hall called his committee a "quasi" group, an entity you would be hard-pressed to find in the Municipal Government Act, and said posting notice of the meeting on the CBRM Web site was "a mistake" for which he was responsible.

Municipal clerk Bernie White backed that up, saying the meeting was a tar ponds agency event and that from his perspective the Hall group is not a committee. What is it then? The CBRM Web site declares: "All meetings of council and its standing committees are open to the public." In fact there is no such limiting option in the Municipal Government Act, which states simply that "council meetings and meetings of committees appointed by council are open to the public."

Elsewhere, the act states, again without distinction among types of committees: "A committee shall operate in accordance with the procedures provided in this act and the procedural policy for the council applies to committees unless the council, by policy, decides otherwise." Council should also be sensitive to the optics of this clubbish behaviour. The tar ponds agency already has a select community liaison committee that meets in secret, and the mayor has reason to wonder as he does whether the Hall committee is a vehicle for spreading that exclusionary mind-set to council.

Initiation by secret knowledge is a psychological trick as ancient as shamanism. The knowledge may even be trivial; that doesn't matter so long as it is secret, and so long as possessing it is a privilege not available to the general rabble. Council should refuse to be co-opted in this way by the tar ponds agency or any other. It is disappointing that not a single one of the five councillors of the "quasi" committee had the smarts or the gumption to walk out once the secrecy had been challenged and confirmed.