Ombudsman says council was wrong to meet behind closed doors with Port Dover Community Health Centre

By David Judd

ONTARIO’S Ombudsman has given county council another slap on the wrist for improperly meeting behind closed doors.
Paul Dube says council was wrong to meet privately on March 14 with two members of the volunteer Port Dover Community Health Centre Board.
The discussion should have taken place in open session, Mr. Dube ruled in a report July 5.
It’s the second time in less than two years that county council has run afoul of the Ombudsman.
In May 2016 council tightened its procedures after Mr. Dube determined council should not have gone behind closed doors on Dec. 1, 2015, to discuss extending contracts for legal services.
The March 14 meeting appears to have been closed at the request of the Port Dover volunteers.
Council closed the meeting for altruistic reasons, “like helping a little old lady cross the street,” County Clerk Andy Grozelle told The Maple Leaf.
On March 14, Bruce Armstrong, chair of the Port Dover Community Health Centre Board, and volunteer Pat Ostapchuk asked council to release a $50,000 grant that council had promised for 2017 but had later rescinded.
The grant would have helped the board look after unpaid bills from its failed efforts to bring a new medical centre to Port Dover.
Council rejected giving the grant at an open meeting on May 9.
But the grant wasn’t the main focus of the March 14 discussion, Mayor Charlie Luke said in an interview.
The mayor said 80 per cent of the discussion concerned the possibility of litigation.
The Ombudsman’s report says Port Dover volunteers were concerned that information in their discussion with councillors “could have an effect on the personal lives of individual members” of the medical centre board.
The board’s chair (Mr. Armstrong) was concerned that if the discussion had taken place in open session, “the personal lives of the board members could have been negatively impacted,” the Ombudsman wrote.
“For example, the chair was concerned that members could have been scrutinized by the community or the local media for their roles as board members.”
The Ombudsman rejected this concern as a reason to close the March 14 meeting.
“While this information, if made public, could have had an impact on the personal lives of board members,” the Ombudsman wrote, “the information solely related to the members in their professional capacity as board members.”
Given the Ombudsman’s ruling, The Maple Leaf asked Mayor Luke and County Clerk Grozelle if they would release details of the March 14 discussion.
Both gentlemen said no.
Clerk Grozelle pointed out that the Ombudsman’s report specifically omitted details of the March 14 discussion.
Mayor Luke said the Ombudsman has reminded Norfolk and other municipalities to be very clear about what they discuss in closed sessions.
“We probably weren’t as clear about what we were doing as we could have been,” the mayor said.
The Ombudsman’s report recommended councillors be vigilant to follow the rules for open meetings and to make sure no subject is discussed behind closed doors unless the Municipal Act clearly allows it.
County councillors received the Ombudsman’s report on July 11 without comment.
“The Ombudsman said ‘here’s a crack on the fingers and try to be more careful,’” Port Dover Coun. John Wells said in an interview.
Coun. Wells said council tried to protect people who volunteered and made decisions that didn’t turn out the way they had hoped.
“Should they be punished?” Coun. Wells asked.
“I don’t think so.”
Port Rowan Coun. Noel Haydt and Simcoe Coun. Doug Brunton refused to take part in the March 14 closed meeting with the two Port Dover volunteers.
Asked why he stayed out of the meeting, Coun. Haydt replied at the time: “I’m tired of getting calls from the Ombudsman.”

Posted: July 20, 2017

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