Sunday, November 19, 2006

Open Meeting Law

After reading yet another article such as the one in Saturday's Windsor Star - Privacy czar opens secret garage deal - it is becoming more and more evident that the only way we will achieve real open government is through legislation. At the Municipal level, with the shift from three to four year terms, open government legislation should be of paramount concern.

Most current Municipal politicians are not going to advocate for this, so it is up to the average citizen. The next Provincial Election is in October of 2007. Time to starting making the MPPs listen - it's the only chance you'll have for the next four years.

Below is the conclusion of a discussion paper prepared by the Ontario Privacy Commissioner's Office in October of 2003:

Making Municipal Government More Accountable: The Need for an Open Meetings Law in Ontario

Ontario needs a tough new municipal open meetings law to ensure government actions areopen and transparent. The Municipal Act does not go far enough. It does require, with limitedexceptions, that councils and boards conduct their business at open meetings where thepublic can attend and observe the debate. However, accessible, transparent government goesfar beyond opening the doors to a meeting.

The broader objective of transparency is to ensure that citizens understand how decisionsare made and have an opportunity to participate in the decision-making process. To be trulyeffective, we need a new law that will encourage integrity in our municipal governmentsand help ensure that elected and appointed municipal officials are operating in the publicinterest.

A new law must ensure that both municipal officials and the public have a clearerunderstanding of which gatherings constitute a “meeting” and which do not. It needs toensure that citizens are given proper advance notice of meetings, and that municipal councilsor boards do not try to slip something onto the agenda at the last minute without telling thepublic. It needs to ensure that the public has access to an efficient and effective oversightbody that can investigate complaints and resolve disputes. The law must also provideremedies or penalties if municipal officials refuse to comply with open meetings requirements.

Although this paper points to the much tougher open meetings rules that exist in U.S.jurisdictions, the provincial government should enact a made-in-Ontario open meetings lawthat is practical and fair. For example, the penalties available in some U.S. jurisdictions forviolations of open meetings rules, particularly criminal penalties, may be inappropriate inOntario’s municipal environment.

An open meetings law may not enjoy full support from all incumbent municipal politiciansin Ontario. However, this is a weak reason for not pushing forward with such an initiative.The Ontario government should consult with municipalities, businesses, unions, communitygroups, non-profit organizations, the media and all other stakeholders who have an interestin promoting open and transparent government. Ultimately, the general public should bethe arbiter of whether the status quo is satisfactory or if a tough new open meetings regimeis needed that will enable citizens to more effectively scrutinize the conduct of municipal governments.