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In-camera coming into focus for meetings

Posted on July 4, 2013 by Taber Times

At a recent editorial roundtable discussion last month among weekly newspapers in The Taber Times newspaper chain, a push-button topic that arose with each and every one of the newspapers was the issue of meetings in their respective readership areas going in-camera and if the people calling for in-camera away from the public eye had the right to do so.

According to the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act (FOIP) a meeting of a local public body’s elected officials, governing body or committee of its governing body may be held in the absence of the public only if the subject matter being considered in the absence of the public concerns land, labour or legal matters.

The question came up here at a May Taber Recreation Board meeting involving a waiver request involving a bible school summer camp in which a board member asked to go into closed session to discuss. While the request was granted, the request certainly had some shades of grey attached to it for the purpose of public transparency, in that the board had never gone into closed session before discussing previous waiver claims.

The request came on the heels of the board coming under fire from comments it made involving the waiver request by the Cornfest committee. Whether the public ire was deserved or not to the recreation board can certainly be debated as well, in the board was simply stressing the Cornfest committee follow the same protocol as every other organization asking for a waiver of fees for town-owned assets, with no preferential treatment.  

But it does raise the issue if being a little gun shy of what may be noted in the media is a reason for calling a matter into closed season, and if that is the motivation, it certainly does not fall under the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act.

Of the Holy Trinity of FOIP, the issue of legal looks to have the most questions attached to it. Given North America’s love of litigation, certainly any matter being discussed with even a hint of controversy can fall under legal if the decision is not to someone’s liking and they have a lawyer on speed dial.

But, that is not the spirit of FOIP in the first place, and to give the recreation board credit, they did ask administration for clarity on the FOIP act.  

At least in recent years, Taber and M.D. of Taber councils and committees have not used closed session liberally with the recreation board having only done it twice in the last two decades.

On the surface, the Taber area including the M.D. has done a good job when it comes to transparency and availability at its meetings and afterwards to the media.

It is a creed that needs to be adhered to vigilantly for those that have either been elected or selected to public office. Before any organization ponders the use of going in-camera at its meetings, it should carefully ponder if the request strictly adheres to the FOIP protocol or if it is simply a loose interpretation.

It is a slippery slope every council and committee is on. Here in North America the optics of true democracy are often questioned and in most cases rightfully so.

On sliding scales there are no absolutes, but we have to at least make efforts we are in the lighter shades of grey when it comes to transparency and accountability. The alternatives, as you can see around you, some of the other parts of the draconian, dictatorial world are certainly ones we do not want to fall into.

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