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Closed-door sessions keeping public in the dark

Posted on September 18, 2019 by Taber Times

It seems like Taber town council needs another reminder of how loose and fast one should not be in discussing topics of the day, especially when they involve taxpayers’ dollars, behind closed doors (going in camera).

Municipalities in Alberta are by definition public organizations governed by an elected body of representatives, but they still have the ability — under strict and limited conditions — to close proceedings to the general public through what is known as an in-camera discussion.

In colloquial terms, topics that are permitted to be discussed in-camera by a municipal council are often referred to as “land, legal or labour,” but there is actually much more that can fall under the umbrella of exceptions provided under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP). Exceptions can include matters where disclosures could be harmful to personal privacy, individual or public safety, law enforcement, intergovernmental relations, or economic or other interests; reveal confidential evaluations, local public body confidence, or advice from officials; or disclose information that is subject to legal privilege.

Even in this laundry list of situations, The Times finds it a bit head scratching the number of items of late town council has decided is better suited for ‘in-camera,’ where often the length of these discussions outpace those issues being talked about in open session.

Both the Taber Golf Club and the Taber Public Library came hat in hand to open council chambers to make their pleas for funding for their respective institutions, only to have further discussion involving their issue discussed behind closed doors at a joint council meeting at Luigis last week. How are the town institutions and their representatives required to make their case in open session, but not the mayor and councillors themselves in giving their yay or nay reasoning to the request to the public?

Another questionable in-camera session on Sept. 9 was talking about the twinning relationship with the town’s sister municipality in Higashiomi, Japan. Even some on council thought it was questionable, with councillor Garth Bekkering wondering why it was deemed necessary to be slated for closed-door discussion at the beginning of the regular open meeting.

Back in the day, according to a Taber Times 2014 article involving a friendship delegation presentation, the town usually sent one representative with the Taber Notogawa Friendship Society who fundraised the amount themselves to send their representative families to Japan. According to the resolution passed after the in-camera session earlier this month, council has decided to send the mayor, CAO and one town councillor in 2020, and for flights, accommodations and ‘etc.’ paid for from the 2020 budget.

Couple these with a grocery list of other in-camera discussions in the recent past involving fire halls, town contributions to community groups, how to deal with volunteer groups, pro rodeo leases, the need for extra police officers etc. and frustration continues to mount, both with us in the newspaper biz and a lot of the general public.

There is no doubt the difficult and at times thankless task town council and administration has in running a municipality, but council was elected by way of democracy, and never getting to hear the logic/reasoning why council has arrived at a decision they have, involving an issue whose connection to a Municipal Government Act loop hole is tenuous at best, is an affront to the very institution of democracy.

If one is constantly afraid of the public hearing what one has to say in its reasoning in guiding public policy, either through a newspaper article or a live-streamed open session meeting, it is not a trait to be embraced for the job of democracy one signed up for.

Democracy does not begin and end at the polling station — it is a year-round endeavour in transparency to the public.

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