Stintz on Midtown: Tory's pitch for private meetings a sign of things to come?

Municipal governments need to remain open, period


Mayor John Tory has proposed meeting with his executive committee in private as a time-saving initiative

There is an adage that what you don’t know won’t hurt you. This may be true at times, but not when it comes to decision making at city hall. And Mayor Tory should know this better than anyone.

Municipal government is not like the federal or the provincial government. There is no Official Government or Loyal Opposition, no party loyalty, no caucus meetings and no confidential ministerial briefings.

Decision making at city hall is designed to be open and transparent to the public. This means that councillors can only meet in private, or in camera, under very specific circumstances, namely when there are decisions involving municipal property or employee relations, or when the city is the subject of a lawsuit. Under the City of Toronto Act, councillors cannot have meetings in private and cannot meet in private.

Open meetings cover everything from the significant to the inane. As a result, critics, and supporters, of city hall conclude that city hall is dysfunctional. 

It can be difficult to argue the point when meetings go on for days about whether to allow someone to cut down a tree in the backyard or where residents can park on the road.

Once council indulged in a six-hour debate on how one member of council should apologize to another member of council. Not surprisingly, the result of that debate was, of course, an apology.

There is no question that the requirement for open debate does not produce the most efficient form of decision making and this seems to be a serious irritant for the current mayor.

Tory is arguing for efficiency in decision making and suggesting that his hand-picked executive committee could meet in private and resolve all the issues before the meeting. This would make the meetings quick and painless and would mean that the mayor wouldn’t have to meet with each member of his executive committee individually.

However, the foundation of municipal government is that debates are held in public and decisions are open to public input. If the decisions are made before the meetings begin, the public meetings become useless and disrespectful to those who show up to make their opinions known.

Open decision making and debate at city hall also requires that information provided by staff is provided equally to all members of council.

Of course, councillors can ask for briefings by staff, but certain groups of councillors should not have more access to information than others.

It is an important principle because decision making at the municipal level is done by consensus.

Although councillors may argue and fume for hours or days, ultimately a vote will be held and a majority vote carries the day.

When a majority vote is reached, it usually means that enough people will be satisfied with the outcome for the decision to be implemented.

This can only happen if councillors have the same access to the same information.

Although there have been silly debates, there have also been serious ones, such as the time that council took the unprecedented step of removing the executive powers from an incumbent mayor and bestowing them on the deputy mayor.

The debate was conducted in public, under the scrutiny of the Fourth Estate, and the decision was nearly unanimous.  

The decision took effect immediately, and the business of the city continued uninterrupted.  There is no other level of government that could have transferred power in such a manner.

There have been increasing examples of public meetings being held in private, from decisions to developments before the Ontario Municipal Board to briefings for councillors. These types of meetings should stop. 

Open decision making at city hall is too important a principle to compromise.

Karen Stintz is a former city councillor, elected in 2003, and was a chair of the TTC. She lives in Ward 16 with her family.

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