What’s in a meeting?
That’s a question Whitehorse city council is facing as it considers a new policy that would rescind the city’s council and senior management (CASM) meeting policy in favour of a council and administration roundtable policy.
The change would effectively mean the current CASM sessions which allow council and management to focus in on one, sometimes two issues, in an hour-long sessions would go from being considered “meetings” to less formal roundtable “gatherings” that would be closed to the public.
In the new format, council and staff would explore the matters up for discussion without moving towards a recommendation. Questions could be asked, pros and cons considered and ideas exchanged.
As a gathering, quorum would not be required, notes would be taken but circulated only internally, and a city staffer rather than a council member would chair the sessions.
All the roundtables would be closed to the public, rather than the CASM format which are open to the public with the exception of certain circumstances outlined in section 213 of the territory’s Municipal Act where meetings can go in-camera. Those include personnel matters, legal proceedings, where certain commercial information is discussed, and in cases where information is discussed that could be prejudicial against the municipality or parties involved in the matter.
Catherine Constable, the city’s manager of legislative services, highlighted a 2012 report about open meetings by the B.C. ombudsperson outlining the difference between a meeting and a gathering in bringing forward the changes.
While she has stressed decisions will continue to be made in an open format at regular council meetings that are open to the public, Constable has put forward the roundtable discussions as gatherings.
Yukon ombudsman Diane McLeod-McKay said in a July 3 interview, municipalities in the territory don’t fall under Yukon ombudsman legislation as is the case for B.C. municipalities and that she does not have enough background to comment extensively on the proposed policy itself.
At the same time, “it’s clear” the law intends meetings to be held in an open public format.
McLeod-McKay went on to suggest that careful consideration needs be made when looking at what is a meeting versus a gathering.
The 2012 B.C. ombudsperson report cited by Constable states: “Some councils gather outside of scheduled meetings for training, planning, briefings or other purposes. These events can be referred to as workshops, shirt sleeve sessions, retreats, or by other terms. There can be uncertainty about whether these informal gatherings are in fact meetings that should be held in public.
“It is not possible to exhaustively define workshops, shirt sleeve sessions and the other terms commonly attached to less formal gatherings or to make generalizations about whether open meeting requirements apply to them. A gathering, whether called a workshop, a shirt sleeve session or something else, can be a meeting.”
The report later lists the circumstances that could make a gathering “more likely a meeting”. Those include if there’s a quorum of council, board or committee members; it’s held in council’s normal meeting place “or in an area completely under the control of the council or board” (Whitehorse CASMs are typically held in the Pioneer Heritage Room at City Hall); it is a regularly scheduled event; formal procedures are followed; votes are held; and if those attending are discussing matters in a way that could move them forward.
Similarly the report states a gathering is less likely to be a meeting if there is no quorum, it isn’t regularly scheduled or follows formal procedures, there’s no voting; and if those attending are there “strictly to receive information or to receive or provide training.”
As city council gets set to vote on the proposed policy at its July 8 meeting, McLeod-McKay again acknowledged that municipalities do not fall under the ombudsman legislation or access to information requirements.
“That is a gap,” she said.
She noted her office is continuing to look at overall legislation in other jurisdictions with a goal of bringing forward proposed amendments before the end of the year.
Contact Stephanie Waddell at firstname.lastname@example.org