It’s Public Money — That Simple

CBRM Council approved a raise for itself last night in response to the federal government’s decision to end a tax break that allowed elected municipal officials to collect one-third of their salaries tax free.

Councilors did it without a word of debate or discussion, presumably because they’d already debated and discussed it in general committee, although in general committee they were mostly concerned with reassuring the public they were not getting a raise, per se, but simply ensuring their take-home pay would remain unchanged. (A luxury most of us don’t have when our taxes go up; but then, most of us don’t get to set our own salaries.)

As I’ve noted before, I’m not particularly upset by the fact of the raises (frankly, I’d rather ensure their net pay remains the same than listen to another word about how hard they work) but I’m appalled by the process. The actual debate and discussion on the issue, as the CBC’s Tom Ayers revealed, had taken place during four previous in camera council sessions.

As it happened, those four in camera sessions were on the agenda last night — District 8 Councilor Amanda McDougall moved the minutes and audio from the meetings be made public. This did engender debate and discussion, much of which made me want to put my head in the freezer.

Council eventually voted to release the minutes from the four in camera meetings. A second motion — to release the audio pending a ruling from the Privacy Commissioner — was rejected, although Mayor Cecil Clarke (who asked if there was any further discussion after the vote, which I don’t believe is proper procedure, then proceeded to talk for a few minutes himself, which I know is not proper procedure) says he’s going to ask for an opinion anyway.

Here are the most maddening highlights from last night’s discussion:

 

Many of our councilors don’t understand the difference between an elected official and a member of municipal staff. 

I have an easy fix for that. When in doubt, ask yourself this question: Can the CAO fire me?

If the answer is “YES,” you are staff.

If the answer is “NO,” you are an elected official.

If the answer is “I AM THE CAO” you are the CAO and you are staff.

You’re welcome.

 

Our regional solicitor is not familiar with the Municipal Government Act (MGA).

Regional solicitor Demitri Kachafanas, if we are to take him at his word, did not know that council was not permitted to discuss its own remuneration behind closed doors until the Department of Municipal Affairs told him so.

This is a problem, because when anyone (staff member or elected official) has a question about the rules under which the municipality operates (i.e. the MGA), they are advised to ask their municipal solicitor.

 

Some councilors think the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) is “social media.”

Councilors George MacDonald (District 9) and Jim MacLeod (District 12) both expressed dismay at the  “social media” response to their discussing their salaries in secret.

I have two problems with this. First is their clear contempt for social media which, at bottom, is precisely what District 11 Councilor Kendra Coombes reminded them it was: the voices of their constituents.

And second, news of the in camera meetings was broken by CBC reporter Tom Ayers — a journalist with the national broadcaster. The same journalist who caught council the last time it was breaking the rules regarding in camera meetings (by holding them without even telling the public they were taking place). Ayers was simply doing what good reporters do: holding government to account.

Of course, he was also doing what even the best reporters don’t often get to do: demonstrating a better grasp of the Municipal Government Act than the regional solicitor.

 

“But we made the decision in public.”

Yes, it’s true, council actually voted on the pay raise in public, but the public is entitled to see the debate that preceded the decision and that’s what’s missing here. As mentioned above, even during general committee there was not a real debate — it was clear the decision had already been made.

 

The rules you break can still protect you.

Asked for his opinion about releasing the audio tapes of the in camera council meetings, Kachafanas said he felt council shouldn’t do so because it would be breaking its own policy and could set a dangerous precedent.

Some councilors noted that discussion in camera tends to be more freewheeling than discussion in open session and suggested it would be unfair to make public remarks that were made in what was believed to be private.

But the list of reasons for going in camera does not include “freedom to trash talk” and if you’re foolish enough to do it, I think that’s your bad.

Both political scientist Tom Urbaniak and Department of Municipal Affairs executive director Mark Peck told Ayers there could be some “nuanced” and “rare” aspects of council remuneration discussions that might “drift” into one of the areas council is permitted to discuss in camera, and perhaps this was the case here, but what if it wasn’t? What if the conversation that took place in camera simply shouldn’t have taken place in camera — do the rules for in camera meetings still apply?

Probably they do need the opinion of the Privacy Commissioner.

 

Some councilors just don’t get it.

District 9 Councilor George MacDonald actually referred to the regional solicitor’s misinterpretation of the MGA as “Demetri’s little boo-boo” (prompting Kachafanas to say he wouldn’t take full responsibility for the error, that there was “plenty of blame to go around.”)

Not understanding the difference between elected officials and municipal personnel is more than a “little boo-boo.”

Allowing council to go in camera to discuss matters it should be discussing in public is more than a “little boo-boo.”

Not understanding that both of these things are more than little boo-boos is more than a little boo-boo.

God, what if I can’t stop talking like this?

 

Some councilors REALLY just don’t get it.

“I think we didn’t do anything wrong,” announced Deputy Mayor Ivan Doncaster near the end of Tuesday’s meeting, which is a step further than most councilors were willing to go — most admitted they’d done something wrong but pleaded ignorance and vowed never to do it again.

Doncaster went on to suggest that when Mark Peck of Municipal Affairs said they were not permitted to discuss their remuneration in camera, he was merely expressing “an opinion” and that council doesn’t need an “opinion,” it needs a “rule” or a “law.”

Luckily, I happen to have one right here. Mr. Deputy Mayor, allow me to introduce Section 22 of the Municipal Government Act:

Open meetings and exceptions

22 (1) Except as otherwise provided in this Section, council meetings and meetings of committees appointed by council are open to the public.
     (2) The council or any committee appointed by the council may meet in closed session to discuss matters relating to

            (a) acquisition, sale, lease and security of municipal property;
            (b) setting a minimum price to be accepted by the municipality at a tax sale;
            (c) personnel matters;
            (d) labour relations;
            (e) contract negotiations;
            (f) litigation or potential litigation;
            (g) legal advice eligible for solicitor-client privilege;
            (h) public security.

As a further aide memoire: You are not personnel (remember the magic question: Can the CAO fire me?)

 

Ask the AG.

You have only to think about it for a moment to see why it’s wrong for elected officials to go in camera to discuss their salaries:

a) they set their own salaries.

b) they are paid with public money.

For future reference, perhaps we should post this message from the Auditor General in the Council Chamber:

Source: Federation of Nova Scotia Municipalities

Source: Federation of Nova Scotia Municipalities

 

 

 

 

 

 

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