City of Hamilton meeting in Niagara was ‘illegally closed to the public’: ombudsman

Ontario's ombudsman says the City of Hamilton was in the wrong when holding a closed-door February meeting in Niagara.

Ontario’s ombudsman is awaiting the City of Hamilton’s response to its recommendations after the public watchdog found a portion of a city meeting held in Niagara in February was illegal.

The meeting, which involved the city manager recruitment steering committee, generated 77 complaints to the public watchdog’s office. Ombudsman Paul Dubé said the number of complaints about the meeting was “more than any other meeting the office has investigated to date.”

In a release, the ombudsman’s office said Hamilton city council did not violate the Municipal Act when it held two closed-door February meetings at a resort in Niagara-on-the-Lake to interview job applicants. However, “the open portion” of the first meeting, on Feb. 9, was “illegally closed to the public,” the ombudsman said.

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Dubé’s office said its investigation found the incident appeared to have been “a breakdown in communication” between the city, its recruitment firm and the venue.

According to the ombudsman, public interest in the meetings “intensified” after Hamilton’s steering committee made a decision in February to hold an event at the White Oaks Resort and Conference Centre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, more than 60 kilometres away from Hamilton.

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The public watchdog went on to observe protests at the February meeting in Niagara after a citizens’ group organized a bus to transport members of the public to protest at the first gathering.

Upon arrival, they found out the meeting — which was originally set for 9 a.m., according to the city’s website, online calendar and committee webpage — had started at 8:30 a.m.

The investigation found the city’s only notification of the time change was on a release from the website.

According to the ombudsman, the “inadequate public notice of the changed meeting time constituted an illegal meeting.”

“The city attempted to convey appropriate instructions for opening the meeting to the public but failed to ensure that the instructions were passed on to the White Oaks staff or followed,” Dubé said in his report.

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“Ultimately, it is the city’s responsibility to ensure that the meetings of council and its committees comply with the open meeting rules and legislation.”

Meanwhile, Dubé said the city acted within its rights to hold private meetings during the recruitment process and move the committee meetings outside of Hamilton.

The ombudsman has made three recommendations as a result of the complaints to his office, which include an update to the city’s procedural bylaw to ensure public notice is provided for all committee meetings, that council members ensure open meeting rules and the city’s own procedural bylaw are followed and that the public has access to all open meetings of council and committees going forward.

The city is now required to pass a resolution stating how it intends to respond to the ombudsman’s recommendations.

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