The Ben Eoin Sessions

Amanda McDougall

Amanda McDougall

Having listened to Mayor Amanda McDougall’s interview with the CBC’s Wendy Bergfeldt, I’ve come to the same conclusion I reached last week: those meetings in Ben Eoin should have been open to the public.

But at a bare minimum, they should have been ANNOUNCED to the public.

Former Municipal Affairs Minister Chuck Porter — who visited to discuss the ins and outs of in camera meetings after the previous council discussed its own salaries behind closed doors — apparently told councilors they could distinguish between “meetings” and “workshops,” and Mayor McDougall said that the new Municipal Affairs Minister, Brendan Maguire, has concurred with this.

But did they also say council could meet without even alerting the public to the fact that they were meeting? Because if so, then what we’ve established is that council may meet anywhere, at any time, with anyone, behind closed doors without telling the public provided the gathering is called a “workshop” or “training session.”

What could possibly go wrong?

 

Lobbying

The mayor objected to the term “lobbying,” arguing that the presentations were purely “educational.”

But look at the Britannica definition of lobbying: “any attempt by individuals or private interest groups to influence the decisions of government.”

All of the individuals and private groups presenting to council were hoping to influence its decisions. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, nor is it an avoidable thing, as Britannica admits, “Lobbying in some form is inevitable in any political system.”

But when a business tells you what it likes about dealing with the CBRM and what it doesn’t like (which was apparently the content of the business presentations during last week’s sessions) it does so hoping to influence you to change the things it doesn’t like.

And the public has a right to hear this presentation, otherwise, it could be presented with a “strategic plan” that includes an item helpful to the owners of large car dealerships without ever realizing that the owner of a large car dealership had suggested this item to council during an “educational” presentation at a golf club.

And the same goes with changes I personally might like — policies related to climate change or affordable housing or food security — no one group has the key to solving these problems, so I need to know who has the ear of council on these subjects and what they’re saying.

 

Trust falls

As for the notion that this was a “team-building” exercise like those some of us have been subjected to in the private or non-profit sectors (I once knew a guy who broke a rib in a “trust fall”) councilors are not employees of a not-for-profit business called the CBRM.

Nor is council a cabinet, which seems to be the other model in play here. Cabinets do get to meet behind closed doors and discuss “priorities” and make sure everyone is on the same page because cabinets are expected to present a unified front to the public — no one is to know which ministers supported a decision and which opposed it. But municipal councils are expected to have their discussions out in the open and councilors needn’t be (and generally aren’t)  shy about expressing dissenting opinions.

MacKenzie King Cabinet, 1930

Not the model to follow: meeting of MacKenzie King’s cabinet, Privy Council Chamber, East Block, 1930

Both systems have their problems — cabinet ministers are sometimes forced to support decisions that run completely contrary to the best interests of their own constituents and municipal councilors can be so contrary they can’t get anything done. But those are the systems within which we have to work.

What’s really galling about the Ben Eoin sessions (which sounds like the title of a Barra MacNeils album) is that council had literally just been presented with a much better method of accomplishing what it ostensibly hoped to accomplish in these closed-door “workshops.”

One of CBU Prof. Tom Urbaniak’s suggestions, made during an open-to-the-public workshop on committee structures and meetings, was that presentations not related to specific agenda items be moved to “facilitated, Council-hosted ‘Solutions Forums.’” Couldn’t council have held an inaugural “Solutions Forum” to hear the presentations that were made at The Lakes? And couldn’t the public have listened in?

 

No help

I was curious to know what Municipal Affairs had to say about these sessions, so I asked for a comment and the response has made me sympathetic to any mayor or councilor hoping to gain clarity on issues related to the MGA from the government.

Spokesperson Krista Higdon said:

Planning is an integral part of providing strategic governance in our local communities. It is expected that municipalities work openly and collaboratively with residents before a plan is finalized.

Which is a fine sentiment, but hardly answers the question. She continued:

The Municipal Government Act outlines the parameters of how councils meet. The province does not provide legal advice to municipalities on this, or other matters. If a municipality has questions about the interpretation of the MGA, they should seek their own independent legal advice in this regard.

(Apparently the CBC’s Tom Ayers received precisely the same boilerplate — I just heard him read it on air. How it jibes with Chuck Porter visiting council to discuss the rules surrounding in camera meetings or Brendan Maguire telling councilors their closed door “strategic planning” sessions were kosher escapes me entirely.)

McDougall told Bergfeldt she would “100%” hold such workshops again but she now thinks they “probably should have had those sessions open to the public for viewing” or perhaps have sent out a press release notifying the public they were taking place. (Or maybe posted them on the CBRM website under “meetings and minutes?”)

I’m not ready to give up on this new council, so I am going to trust that next year, if such workshops are held, they will be open to the public. (And while we’re dreaming, let’s imagine that next year COVID won’t be a factor.)