The Ombudsman of Ontario has concluded Springwater Township council did nothing wrong when it held a closed-session meeting on May 3, 2023.

According to the report, which will be presented to council on Wednesday during its meeting, provincial ombudsman Paul Dubé received complaints alleging that council’s discussion of a rainbow crosswalk project, the hiring process for an economic development assistant and an employment matter related to the Springwater Public Library in closed session was contrary to the rules around open meetings.

“My investigation determined that council for the Township of Springwater did not contravene the open meeting rules on May 3, 2023 when it met in closed session to discuss a rainbow crosswalk project and an item related to employment matters at the Springwater Public Library,” Dubé wrote in his report.

“Council also did not contravene the Municipal Act, 2001 when it discussed the hiring process for an economic development assistant position,” he added. “While no part of the discussion fit within the cited exception for labour relations or employee negotiations, the portion of the discussion that referred to personal information about a specific employee fit within the exception for personal matters.

“As the remaining portion of the discussion could not have been parsed, the entire discussion fit within the ‘personal matters’ exception.”

Seven months ago, on Oct. 31 of last year, the ombudsman’s office informed the township of its intent to investigate the complaints. 

Members of the ombudsman’s office reviewed the recordings, agendas and minutes of both the open and closed sessions, an email petitioning for the special meeting, as well as relevant past minutes and reports. 

The ombudsman noted it conducted interviews with the mayor and clerk, and received full co-operation during the investigation. 

According to the report, council met for the special council meeting in council chambers at 3 p.m. on May 3, 2023. 

The meeting was called by petition of four members of council — Deputy Mayor George Cabral and Councillors Anita Moore, Danielle Alexander and Phil Fisher — and identified three topics for discussion: the economic development assistant position, a drag-queen story time and a rainbow sidewalk project. 

The agenda from the open session indicated, as requested by petition, that council would discuss a rainbow crosswalk project and a drag story-time event hosted by the Springwater Public Library in open session, before discussing three items in closed session.

In open session, council talked about perceived irregularities related to a rainbow crosswalk project, including different understandings of what financial responsibility a local high school would have.

“In this case, some council members raised concerns about the high school representative’s previous communications with council in connection with the rainbow crosswalk project that had been discussed in open session,” Dubé wrote. “While the representative had interacted with council in a professional capacity, council scrutinized this individual’s personal conduct.

“Accordingly, the exception for personal matters about an identifiable individual applied,” he added.

Although the resolution also cited the exception for labour relations or employee negotiations for this topic, the township clerk told the ombudsman that this was an error.

Since the high school representative was not an employee of the township, the “labour relations or employee negotiations” exception did not apply.

Council then discussed an event arranged by the Springwater Public Library, which was the drag story time.

Council members shared their views on this type of event and library story times more generally. Council discussed the event’s funding and venue. After some discussion, council passed a resolution stating council supported the event.

At 4:26 p.m., council passed a resolution to proceed into closed session with the following description: 

  • A personal matter about an identifiable individual, including municipal or local board employees; 
  • Labour relations or employee negotiations. 

Topics included:

  • Employment matters — Springwater Public Library (identifiable individual) 
  • Hiring — economic development assistant (labour relations or employee negotiations)
  • Rainbow crosswalk project — irregularities (identifiable individual and labour relations and employee negotiations).

At 4:44 p.m., council recessed from closed session for its regularly scheduled council meeting. 

It returned to closed following the end of that meeting.

Council then discussed the economic development assistant item.

Council’s resolution cited the exception for labour relations or employee negotiations under the Municipal Act to discuss the hiring process for the economic development assistant position. 

“In this case, council’s discussion focused on concerns about how the economic development assistant position was filled, and how the township should generally approach co-op positions and partnerships with post-secondary institutions,” Dubé wrote.

“Council did not specifically discuss its relationship to the particular employee selected for the role, and references to the position’s pay and duties were incidental to questions about changes to the position that had been made before the position was filled,” he added. 

Accordingly, the “labour relations or employee negotiations” exception did not apply.

Although it wasn’t cited in council’s resolution to proceed into closed session, the ombudsman also considered whether the exception for personal matters about an identifiable individual could have applied to any portions of council’s discussion about the economic development assistant position. 

“Both the mayor and the clerk indicated that this exception might have applied to some portions of the discussion,” Dubé wrote.

Council also relied on the “personal matters” exception of the Municipal Act to discuss an employment matter related to the Springwater Public Library concerning a specific individual.

During the discussion, some council members raised concerns about the conduct of an employee at the Springwater Public Library, in connection to the drag story-time event discussed in open session, stated the ombudsman’s report. As this amounted to scrutiny of the individual’s conduct, the portions of the discussion about the individual’s conduct fit within the exception for personal matters about an identifiable individual.

“However, on several occasions, council’s discussion moved beyond this topic,” Dubé said. “For instance, there were questions and comments about library board minutes, the merits of drag performances, and whether council could dissolve the library board. 

“In response to these digressions, the clerk, the mayor and a councillor interrupted the discussion to raise concerns and provide reminders about staying on topic,” he added. “These interventions triggered some procedural discussions as well.”

According to Dubé, timely interventions by staff and some members of council kept the digressions brief.

Dubé said they arose incidentally to the main discussion about scrutinizing the individual’s conduct. 

“Accordingly, the discussion as a whole fit within the exception for personal matters about an identifiable individual,” he added. “However, I encourage all members of council to be vigilant in keeping discussions focused on the topic cited in the resolution to proceed into closed session.”

By Wayne Doyle, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jun 03, 2024 at 16:53

This item reprinted with permission from   BarrieToday   Barrie, Ontario

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