New numbers released by the Manning Foundation, a free-market think tank, show Calgary city council has spent a considerable amount of its meeting time behind closed doors during this most recent term.
The data, derived from the official minutes of 120 city council meetings, held between 2013 and 2017, shows council met in-camera at least 748 times. This is equal to nearly 267 hours of meeting time spent in private, representing 23.7 per cent of the total time council met during the term. Compared to the previous term of council, in-camera time increased by 4.7 per cent.
“That’s obviously a worrying trend,” said Manning Foundation director of research Peter McCaffrey.
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By comparison, the city of Hamilton went in-camera 13 times during its previous term, Toronto met in private 18 times and Ottawa just once.
“The way council functions is very different from other councils,” McCaffrey said. “That might be something people need to look at and decide whether that’s appropriate or not.”
Alberta’s Municipal Government Act (MGA) states councils and council committees must conduct their meetings in public unless the subject matter could be harmful to a third party’s personal privacy, individual or public safety, law enforcement, intergovernmental relations, or economic interests. The MGA directs councils to avoid doing business in-camera on matters including discussion on “difficult” topics like budget deliberations, contentious or sensitive issues, bylaw amendments, capital expenditures, or discussions regarding hiring staff and setting salaries.
While the details of Calgary city council’s in-camera meetings are not known, some of the general themes which agenda items fall under include transit and taxis, parks and recreation, utilities, strategy and planning, and program/policy items.
Nearly 20 per cent of the agenda items provide no indication as to what was discussed.
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“The fact that Calgary city council is logging the fact the meetings are happening in council could be a sign they are trying to open the discussion to the entire council, together, in-camera,” said Lori Williams, associate professor of policy studies at Mount Royal University. “But again, because we don’t know what’s being discussed behind the scenes, it could raise more questions in terms of transparency and accountability.”
“The more open council is about what it’s doing – even if it can’t be open about what was discussed in those meetings – the less there will be questions about what’s being discussed behind closed doors.”
“I think 748 times in-camera without detailed explanations of the reasons why, and given the concerns that have been raised across the board by many people, might suggest there’s an issue there,” McCaffrey said.
“We would encourage as much transparency as possible.”
News Talk 770 attempted to contact Mayor Naheed Nenshi regarding the report, but he was unavailable to provide comment.