Ombudsperson report calls for openess, transparency in local government

Report provides checklist to ensure in camera meetings meet proper protocol

British Columbia’s ombudsperson has issued a report addressing openness and transparency aimed at municipalities, regional districts and Islands Trust.

Kim Carter released her report titled Open Meetings: Best Practices Guide for Local Governments last week.

The report outlines responsibilities in the Community Charter for local government bodies, and provides a checklist for councils and boards to follow to ensure in camera meetings are held for the right reasons and proper procedures are followed.

Though Carter notes in the report that many local government bodies are moving toward improved transparency, the guide will help elected officials comply with statutory requirements, improve consistency in practice and foster trust and confidence in the decision-making process.

“One of the cornerstones of open and transparent government in British Columbia is the requirement for local government to conduct meetings that are open and accessible to the public,” said Carter.

The office of the Ombudsperson receives inquiries and complaints about the practices and services of public agencies within its jurisdiction. The office has been investigating complaints about local governments since 1993.

In its recently implemented corporate strategic plan, the city’s first, Nanaimo names transparency and responsibility as one of its strategic priorities.

Part of that strategy, said Nanaimo Mayor John Ruttan, includes the hiring of Philip Cooper, the city’s first communications manager. Cooper is charged with the task of developing a communications policy and strategy and presenting it to city council.

“We’ve always supported being open and transparent wherever we can be within the limitations of what we are discussing and we will continue to do that,” said Ruttan. “We can always do a better job of keeping everybody up to date, but of course that reflects back on (Cooper) and hopefully he’s going to be able to recommend a more timely release of information than we’ve been giving and we hope that is something the public will appreciate.”

Ruttan noted, however, that some subjects, often referred to as the three L’s – land, legal and labour – require confidential discussion to protect personal privacy, legal requirements and property transactions.

“That won’t change, it’s under the Community Charter,” he said. “It would be very difficult for any municipality to function if that did change.”

In her concluding statements of the report, Carter states that the goal was to assist local governments in following appropriate protocol in the specific and limited circumstances when council believes it is necessary to close a meeting.

“Local governments across Canada are moving towards more open and transparent decision-making,” wrote Carter. “Open meetings advance the democratic process by providing the public with an understanding of the considerations underlying local government actions and by allowing members of the public to observe the performance of their elected officials.”

To read the report in its entirety, visit www.bcombudsperson.ca.

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