Coun­cil trans­parency not al­ways so clear

How min­utes are recorded and pub­lished mainly left to mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties: Old­ford


Trans­parency of coun­cils through­out the prov­ince is not so clear in its in­ter­pre­ta­tion and im­ple­men­ta­tion.

A pe­rusal of some towns’ web­pages does make it clear that the re­port­ing of coun­cil min­utes is more than varied.

Some coun­cils pro­vide de­tailed ex­pla­na­tions of agenda items, dis­cus­sions and de­ci­sions. In this case, a res­i­dent can learn what their coun­cil is do­ing and what is hap­pen­ing through­out their town.

Some­times a lit­tle in­for­ma­tion is re­vealed pub­licly. A cit­i­zen can at least see that things are hap­pen­ing, but of­ten would have to seek out spe­cific de­tails to get the ins and outs of par­tic­u­lar items.

Other towns list lit­tle more than an agenda item ti­tle, stat­ing that the item was for in­for­ma­tion pur­poses, or not­ing whether it was ap­proved or de­nied.

In these cases, res­i­dents are left won­der­ing what ex­actly is hap­pen­ing, some­times lead­ing to ac­cu­sa­tions of things be­ing held from them — the “be­hind­closed-doors” to “some­thing to hide” per­cep­tions.

Un­der the Mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties Act, coun­cil meet­ing min­utes must be made avail­able for pub­lic view­ing. The pro­to­col is that min­utes from the pre­vi­ous meet­ing will be brought be­fore coun­cil at its next pub­lic meet­ing for ap­proval.

How­ever, there is no clear set of guide­lines or stan­dards as to what must be re­vealed in those min­utes.

Also, it is not re­quired that coun­cils or staff post such min­utes on so­cial me­dia or web­sites, al­though that op­tion is avail­able to them, ac­cord­ing to Karen Old­ford, pres­i­dent of Mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties New­found­land and Labrador (MNL).

“I think most com­mu­ni­ties try to get (min­utes) out there be­cause they want res­i­dents en­gaged – I think ev­ery­body does,” she told the Nor’wester Thurs­day, Oct. 2 at the Mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties New­found­land and Labrador an­nual gen­eral meet­ing in Cor­ner Brook.

“Some com­mu­ni­ties are so small that they can’t af­ford a web­site.”

Craig Pol­lett, MNL’s chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer, con­firmed the only re­quire­ment for a coun­cil or staff is to en­sure those min­utes are avail­able “dur­ing nor­mal busi­ness hours” upon re­quest fol­low­ing their ap­proval. A num­ber of doc­u­ments fit within those cri­te­ria, in­clud­ing the adopted min­utes of coun­cil.

As for what is pub­lished in the min­utes, Old­ford said dis­cus­sions around par­tic­u­lar mo­tions do not have to be in­cluded — al­though some­times they are.

She said pro­vid­ing a re­cap of con­ver­sa­tions used to be more com­mon in years past, but un­der Robert’s Rules of Or­der, it is not re­quired.

“That is the de­bate that goes around the mo­tion, but the mo­tion should stand on its own legs,” she said.

A mover and a se­cond for mo­tions are to be recorded. Most times, any coun­cil mem­ber who ob­jects to the ap­proval of a mo­tion will ask for the min­utes to re­flect their vote, she noted. Some­times their ra­tio­nale for that ob­jec­tion is noted.

The de­ci­sion on how much de­tail is pro­vided falls upon each in­di­vid­ual coun­cil and its staff. Pol­lett said most would just pro­vide a record of the de­ci­sions made. Par­tic­u­lar re­ports or pub­lic doc­u­ments would be part of the min­utes pack­age avail­able for pe­rusal at town halls.

“Ev­ery coun­cil is a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent, but if you were to ask for the doc­u­ment, if it was part of the min­utes and ap­proved, it should be avail­able,” Old­ford said.

There are de­tails of agenda items or mo­tions that con­tain sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion that must not be made avail­able for pub­lic view­ing. The re­cently changed Ac­cess to In­for­ma­tion Laws now limit that to ex­am­ples where mak­ing it pub­lic could do harm to cer­tain peo­ple, for ex­am­ple. Re­leas­ing in­for­ma­tion that could iden­tify a per­son, or their per­sonal in­for­ma­tion re­mains a prob­lem­atic area, ac­cord­ing to Pol­lett.

“That’s ac­tu­ally been a re­ally dif­fi­cult thing for a lot of mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties be­cause they are re­ally not sure now what they can and can­not re­lease,” he said. “As you would ex­pect, they are go­ing to err on the side of cau­tion.”

Old­ford en­cour­ages all coun­cils to be as open and trans­par­ent as pos­si­ble, rec­og­niz­ing there is a bal­ance with re­leas­ing per­sonal or busi­ness in­for­ma­tion that can be detri­men­tal or harm­ful.

A stan­dard for re­port­ing coun­cil min­utes across the prov­ince would be dif­fi­cult, she said, par­tic­u­larly be­cause of the sizes and re­sources of some mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties.

“The one-size-fits all may not nec­es­sar­ily work,” she said. “Seventy-five per cent of our mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties have one or fewer em­ploy­ees, which means they prob­a­bly have a part-time clerk that comes in and scrib­bles down some min­utes and pays some bills.

“You can have some gen­eral guide­lines of what should be in­cluded in your min­utes, and we en­cour­age coun­cils to adopt what process they are go­ing to use. That is the big­gest thing.”


Karen Old­ford speaks to del­e­gates dur­ing a break in the Mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties New­found­land and Labrador an­nual gen­eral meet­ing in Cor­ner Brook Nov. 3.

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