‘There’s no problem’: Council members divided on closed meetings report

Mayor Naheed Nenshi accused a city councillor of politicizing closed-door meetings for political gain Tuesday, following the release of a report looking into the amount of time councillors meet in private.

New data on the time city councillors spend in camera — which was presented at the priorities and finance committee Tuesday — showed that over a one-year period, 21 per cent of agenda items discussed by Calgary’s council were kept confidential.

However, while the committee adopted several recommendations aimed at better managing time spent in closed meetings, not all council members agreed there is a problem in the first place.

“There’s no problem. Clearly, this is just something that members of council have tried to use for political gain and fundraising purposes,” Nenshi said following the meeting in remarks that appeared to be directed at Coun. Jeromy Farkas.

“In my experience in (eight) years of doing this, politicians who actually lie are few and far between. It’s very uncommon to see things that are completely untrue, and in the last year we see it all the time. And that is very, very troubling to me.”

While the city report presented at Tuesday’s meeting included useful comparisons to jurisdictions such as Vancouver, Ottawa and Winnipeg, it didn’t make a direct comparison to Edmonton — the closest jurisdiction to Calgary in terms of population and legislation governing disclosure and privacy.

Edmonton city council dealt with 74 private agenda items between May 8, 2017, and May 28, 2018, according to data provided to Postmedia by the Edmonton city clerk’s office.

Calgary, by comparison, discussed 179 confidential agenda items during the same time period.

Nenshi said Tuesday that there are reasons Calgary has seen a greater number of closed sessions. Calgary has been dealing with a greater number of files that have required confidentiality, Nenshi said, including Green Line land acquisitions, city charter negotiations with the province and the Olympic bid.

He said he’s also partly responsible for increasing the number of in camera meetings: “I did that. I did that on purpose, because unlike previous mayors who made a lot of decisions without involving council, I’ve always, for eight years, wanted to have council part of those discussions.”

City clerk Laura Kennedy pointed out Tuesday that different cities have different decision-making structures and different procedure bylaws.

“Edmonton had delegated responsibility to administration on certain things that don’t come to council or committee. They’ve also delegated authority to committee,” said Kennedy. “So it’s just different structures.”

Kennedy said that in jurisdictions where the number of closed meetings in a year are in the single digits, it may be that information is being shared with council members outside of meetings.

Committee members voted Tuesday to approve a number of new procedures, including: more detailed descriptions in agendas of closed meeting topics; the setting of deadlines for the release or review of confidential information; and the delegation of more decisions on land sales to the committee level.

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Part of Tuesday’s meeting saw some council members take aim at one of the most vocal critics of transparency at city hall, accusing Farkas of spreading “weaponized misinformation” and urging city staff to issue statements to counter false claims.

Colleagues look on as Coun. Jeromy Farkas refuses to apologize for comments he made on social media.

“When a statement is woefully incorrect, as we’ve seen over the last year by some members of council, (I’m) not sure why we don’t give city clerks the authority to write us a briefing note when there’s a statement out there that isn’t correct,” said Coun. Shane Keating. “Because of the weaponized misinformation that’s being used over and over again.”

Farkas was subdued in his response following Tuesday’s meeting, calling the recommendations that came forward a “vindication” of his agenda.

“I think there is a growing consensus that the amount of time council spends behind closed doors is really unreasonable and out of whack with other jurisdictions,” Farkas said.

According to the city’s report — prompted by a notice of motion from Coun. Peter Demong — Vancouver saw 122 in camera items in 2017; Ottawa reported six in camera items over a 12-month period in 2016-17; and Winnipeg “usually” has between four and 10 in camera items per year.

A number of other measures were also approved Tuesday, including an amendment from Coun. Ward Sutherland to give councillors the ability to challenge a motion to go behind closed doors.

Another proposal, directing administration to look at allowing councillors to bring “personal advisers” into closed-door meetings — such as personal lawyers or the city’s integrity commissioner — was also narrowly endorsed by committee.

Nenshi said the idea that councillors would need to bring their own lawyers to a closed meeting is “ridiculous” and a “weaponized” argument.

“There’s no reason you would ever need that. We heard a member of council today say that there have been personnel items about him — no, there haven’t. This is just not helpful. This makes it sound like it’s some sort of Star Chamber back there — it isn’t,” Nenshi said angrily.

“If any member of council feels intimidated, it’s because of their own behaviour.”

mpotkins@postmedia.com
Twitter: @mpotkins

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