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Right to Know Week, Day 3: Secret government meetings

Both the city council and the school board hold legally questionable secret 'educational" meetings.

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Some of the criticism levelled at city council’s secret meetings misses the mark. I’m talking about the “council met 28 times in secret last year” type of criticism---the number of secret meetings really doesn’t shed much light on whether they meetings were legitimately secret.

Council can legitimately meet in secret for issues involving real estate, litigation and personnel, and this makes sense: it would be a disservice to the taxpayer if the city’s negotiating position on a real estate deal or potential litigant was made public before making an offer on property or going to court, and employees have a right to privacy when their job performance is being discussed.

Still, just because council can meet in secret for these reasons doesn’t mean council must meet in secret for these reasons, but the default position is that all these discussions are secret. We’d be better off if some of these discussions were held in public: the annual debate with the federal government over in lieu payments for Citadel Park should be public, for example, as should the review of the CAO, which involves policy and political discussion.

And council tends to stretch the legitimate reasons to include stuff that shouldn’t be discussed in secret. The prime example of this is council’s appointments to boards and committees, which council does in secret using the “personnel” excuse. A citizen may have a range of reasons for asking to serve on a committee, from an old fashion commitment to public service to looking to influence city policy such that a particular business or set of businesses benefits. (The latter happens rather blatantly when the Chamber of Commerce, for example, tries to get reps on a city committee.) The public has a legitimate right to know the motivations of a particular applicant, and to see how council deals with those motivations. More, council doesn’t just use the “personnel” excuse for citizen appointments, but also when appointing councillors themselves to committees. Councillor are not employees; they are public servants who should be open to public scrutiny.

Council also legitimately holds secret meetings, but then in my view improperly holds back documentation related to the meetings. I place claim settlements in this category. People make an unknown (to us) number of claims for all sorts of things---getting injured when a bus slams on its brakes or tripping over broken sidewalk, tree branches falling on cars, getting beat up by cops and so forth. We should know what sort of settlements are being made, and for how much, so that we can have proper oversight of our government and identify problems that are now secret.

Today, however, I will highlight a different kind of secret meeting: the “educational meetings,” which are known in City Hall as “Lunch and Learns.

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