Former ombudsman says Tory’s secrecy request is anti-democratic
“It would be a lot easier to have a private meeting with your 12 councillors, but who loses is democracy,” said André Marin.
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Mayor John Tory’s request to the premier that his executive committee be allowed to meet in private is being panned as anti-democratic by a former provincial ombudsman who regularly battled municipalities over secrecy.
“Democracy is inconvenient and messy, but so be it,” André Marin, Ontario ombudsman from 2005 to 2015, said Sunday in an interview with the Star. “It would be a lot easier to have a private meeting with your 12 councillors, but who loses is democracy — you and I — because we weren’t privy to those discussions and decisions.”
Marin did not have jurisdiction over Toronto — which has its own ombudsman and integrity commissioner — but called out other municipalities that defied Ontario’s Municipal Act, which states committees must meet in public unless they are discussing specifically defined issues including security and solicitor-client privilege.
“What I found in many instances were in-camera (closed-door) meetings where municipal councillors deliberated as a group and then came out in unison and publicly rubber-stamped important decisions,” Marin said.
In an interview with the Star on Sunday, Tory acknowledged making the request to Kathleen Wynne during a private meeting earlier this year. The discussion became public now only because it was mentioned in a record released to the Toronto Sun through a freedom of information request.
Tory’s hand-picked 12-councillor executive committee meets most months. The committee hears public deputations and votes on many major issues, deciding which are shelved, which proceed to city council and in what form they land there. Council can and does ignore executive committee’s recommendation.
Tory said he made the request to Wynne in an “informal way” in the context of the Ontario government’s request for suggestions on possible municipal legislation reforms. Toronto is governed by its own provincial law, the City of Toronto Act.
“I simply said that at Toronto city hall, when I want to have meeting of executive, a dozen people, it would be nice to be able to go through the agenda and say, ‘Do you have any particular thoughts on this,’ or ‘Why is this there,’ ” with no decisions being made in secret, the mayor said.
“I said it in the context of the review, it’s not a big deal for me,” Tory said. Asked if he plans to formally ask the province for the change, the mayor said: “I don’t think so.”
Tory’s staff routinely meet with members of his executive committee to get feedback on proposals and convince them to back his position.
He said he is forced to meet with councillors “two at a time” because a gathering a majority of the 13-member executive, with discussions that “materially advance the business or decision-making of the council,” could run afoul of the open-meeting rules.
“I am fully committed to, and find very healthy, the transparency of municipal governments,” added Tory, a former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader. Caucuses of provincial and federal parties routinely meet privately to set policy directions.
Marin he believes that Tory meeting with even two councillors runs afoul of the spirit of the City of Toronto Act, by evading the limit on meeting participants — a contention Tory blasted as “ridiculous” in the context of trying to run an efficient meeting.
Mark Cripps, spokesperson for Ontario Municipal Affairs Minister Bill Mauro, said Bill 68, currently before the legislature, proposes “a limited number of new exceptions to the open meetings requirements in response to municipal feedback on the need for more flexibility to meet their local needs.”
The changes would not permit “strategic forecasting and agenda setting” in private, Cripps said, calling open-meeting rules “an important component of Ontario’s municipal accountability and transparency framework.”
Councillor Gord Perks, a noted Tory critic on council, said he was “disappointed” the mayor would broach the subject with Wynne.
“It shows that he doesn’t understand that his most important accountability is to the general public,” he added.
Perks acknowledged he and other left-leaning councillors routinely meet to discuss policy and strategy but denied such gatherings break the rules.
“There’s nothing wrong with getting informed — the difference is we are not deciding on outcomes, we don’t have a majority of councillors who are going to decide those outcomes,” he said.
Tory does not favour city politicians getting the same freedom to meet privately as their provincial and federal counterparts — but his deputy mayor does.
Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong said the City of Toronto “has a $13-billion budget, we’re larger than many provinces, and the executive is, for all and intents and purposes, the cabinet of the government.
“If we are not making decisions, I see no reason why the province shouldn’t seriously consider letting executive committee meet in private,” he told the Star.