by Colin Smith
When it comes to public business, what is private and why?
Some Morinville residents are wondering about that in connection with Town Council’s recent lengthy closed sessions – during which discussions are held without the press and public in attendance.
The issue has surfaced in a public forum and in conversations with Councillors particularly in regard to a January 8 closed session that resulted in a decision to waive an $8,397.32 residential tax bill.
In line with Alberta’s Municipal Government Act (MGA), Council and Council committees must conduct their meetings in public. However, the meetings can be closed for discussions of matters that are excepted for disclosure under the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act (FOIP).
The 14 exceptions to disclosure provided for by the act include items that would be harmful to the business interests of a third party, to personal privacy, to individual or public safety, to economic or other interests of a local public body or to intergovernmental relations, as well as advice from officials and confidential evaluations.
“Items discussed in closed session must have a reason to be discussed in private,” said Mayor Barry Turner in an email. “Generally speaking, these must be issues that cannot be discussed in public due to potential harm to either the Town or others. Decisions cannot be made in private, and in cases where a decision of Council is required a motion must be made in public.”
The Mayor pointed out that all items that are discussed in closed sessions are clearly indicated on the agenda what section of FOIP is applicable.
“Decisions on whether something is discussed in closed sessions are determined by the Agenda Review Committee when the agendas are set, and all members of Council have the ability to put a motion on the table at any time to move a discussion out of closed session if they feel the matter at hand should be discussed in public.”
According to Turner, on the agenda for each of the regular and committee of the whole meetings in January there were a number of weighty items that required Council discussion, and the nature of these items required that the discussions be held in a closed session.
“At the January 8 meeting, the upcoming Intermunicipal Collaboration Framework discussions were on the agenda. As these are negotiations between two municipalities, the discussions cannot be held in public for obvious reasons,” he said.
Turner noted that the closed session at the Committee of the Whole was to accommodate a strategic planning session – the results of which will be debated and decided on in a regular council meeting — and the Intermunicipal Collaboration Framework was again discussed at the January 29 meeting.
“Regarding the decision to waive a residential tax bill, without getting into the specifics of the case, there are occasions, although rare, that the expenses required to collect on a tax bill are likely more than the revenue generated, and in these cases it is more advantageous to actually waive the fees than to pursue collection or take over the property,” he said. “The motion to waive the tax bill was made in public and it is not possible to waive fees without a motion in public.”
Turner indicated that the FOIP act gives members of the press and general public the right to make an official request for any information from the Town of Morinville.
A person who wants to make a request can obtain a Request To Access form from the Town at https://www.morinville.ca/doc-library/forms/944-foip-request-to-access-information/file. The form must then be forwarded along with an initial $25 fee to Morinville FOIP coordinator Lois Rusk, who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Further information is available at foip.alberta.ca.
This initiates a review of the information requested, to determine what can be provided under the act and what must remain private as outlined in the legislation.
That determination is also subject to review by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, which can order the release of information.