Charlottetown City Council spends more time in closed debates than open sessions, records show
The Charlottetown City Council spent more time in closed sessions than in open council meetings this year, according to a review of public records by CBC News.
This led to at least one member concluding that the council violated the PEI’s Municipal Government Act (MGA), which establishes criteria limiting the debates councils are allowed to hold privately.
“I’ve been contacted by some residents and they’re quite upset, they’re really upset,” Coun said. Mitchell Tweel told CBC News after it was revealed the council had discussed and – according to Tweel and other council members – rejected a proposal to open a warming shelter in a closed session earlier this month.
“Some [residents] have said that this is against the Local Government Act and I believe they are right.”
Tweel and other council members said they thought the meeting had moved to a closed session to discuss the findings of a forensic examination report, but then moved back to an open session.
“Why should a meeting of this nature be held in a closed session?” said Tweel. “What are we hiding here?”
25 hours in closed sessions
CBC News reviewed council minutes and videos posted on the city’s YouTube channel. As of February 14, the Council appears to have spent more than 25 hours in closed session in 2023 – and more than 18 hours in open debate.
Under the MGA, Council meetings are public by default. Only under certain conditions – for example, to discuss personnel or legal matters – can councils legally enter into closed sessions.
The law also requires councils to disclose information discussed in closed sessions “when confidentiality is no longer required”.
But it’s difficult for the public to keep track of whether city councils are following the legislation because the city, at least in the case of Charlottetown, doesn’t let residents know what’s been discussed behind closed doors.
A city spokesman emailed CBC News that since the beginning of the year, the council has been considering issues “that are reasonably held in closed session,” such as the forensic review, the search for a new chief executive, and budget discussions.
Closed session topics confidential, Mayor says
On February 2 — the day some council members say the council voted 7-2 against opening a warming shelter — Mayor Philip Brown cited Section 119(1)(f) of the MGA allowing the council to do so to go to a closed session to “conduct current or pending legal proceedings or review legal advice.”
Four days later, during an open council meeting, Tweel raised concerns that this debate was taking place behind closed doors. Tweel, along with the mayor and other council members, all said they had received calls from local residents about the issue.
Brown confirmed that the debate took place in a closed session, but denied that a vote took place and said he did not know how information from the session leaked.
“A closed session is a meeting of confidential information, so anyone releasing that information is a breach of confidentiality,” Brown said.
City councilors can be fined up to $10,000 for violating the city’s code of conduct.
After that meeting on February 6, Brown told CBC News he couldn’t say if warming shelters would be discussed in a closed session, citing confidentiality. He would not answer questions about whether such a move would violate the MGA or how often the city goes into closed sessions.
Brown also told the council he would ask the city’s attorney whether the city was violating the MGA for holding the debate in a closed session. In an email, a city spokesman declined further information, saying the city “does not release legal opinions because they are privileged and confidential.”
“Higher use of closed meetings”
A provincial spokesman said municipalities must report how often they attend a closed session each year and the municipalities minister can request additional information.
“Municipal Affairs recognizes that closed meetings are being used more frequently,” the email reads.
If a council were to breach the MGA, the spokesman said, “a warning would be issued first and further action may be taken by either the department or the minister if necessary.”
The spokesperson did not respond to specific questions about the City of Charlottetown’s use of closed sessions or the communities that received warnings.
Tweel says it’s time for the province to step in.
“I think we need to put the brakes on this… because it’s not open, it’s not transparent and it’s definitely not accountable,” he said.
Summerside lists topics from closed meetings
CBC News hasn’t been able to calculate how much time the Summerside City Council spends in closed sessions because of the way the city broadcasts its council meetings, and a spokesman said it doesn’t track how long closed sessions last.
But Mayor Dan Kutcher said his council is spending more time in open than closed sessions.
As part of a new measure introduced this year, the Council’s agendas and minutes, which are made available to the public, now list details of the issues discussed during closed sessions.
For example, minutes of a private portion of a Fairs Council meeting discussed the city’s eco-business park, its solar energy farm, a housing initiative, and program funding from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.
“My philosophy and approach as mayor is to have open discussions in front of the public as much as possible,” Kutcher said.
“I think giving the public a chance to see the talks that are taking place reinforces the hard work that people are putting in. … When there are tough decisions, that doesn’t mean they’re going to an in-camera [closed session]. Difficult decisions must also be made in a public forum.”