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Calgary councillors address transparency, private meetings

Last Updated Dec 4, 2018 at 3:37 pm MDT

During the council meeting today, the proposed public safety task force will be reviewed. (Calgary council chambers inside city hall. Photo by Tom Ross, 660 NEWS).

CALGARY (660 NEWS) — With concern rising around the number of private, in-camera, sessions held at Calgary City Hall, a committee made some recommendations to improve the system on Tuesday.

The Priorities and Finance Committee adopted several recommendations made by the administration, as the number of items addressed behind closed doors continues to grow.

Between May 2017 and May 2018, there were 104 meetings in the council chambers, with 1,480 items discussed, amounting to almost 550 hours spent in the public eye. During the same timeframe, 306 items were discussed in private, amounting to just over 76 hours spent in the so-called ‘Chamber of Secrets’. The majority of the items brought in-camera — 32 per cent — were around land issues, such as purchases.

The recommendations include enhanced descriptions of potential closed meeting items on the main agenda, firm release-by or review-by dates, and including a public component of each report.

Administration was also directed to looking into allowing a member to challenge the motion on holding a closed meeting and investigating if councillors should be allowed to bring in a representative, like a lawyer, into these meetings as well.

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Starting with the release of information to the public, Mayor Naheed Nenshi admits this should already be happening.

“I learned today that even when we set a release date, sometimes we forget to release the documents because we just don’t have the administrative procedures in place. So that’s why all of the recommendations passed cleanly because they were actually nice improvements to the system.”

The Mayor added that the reason council meets in private more often now than in past administrations, is because he specifically wants it that way.

“Unlike previous mayors, who made a lot of decisions without involving council, I’ve always, for eight years, wanted council to be a part of those discussions.”

This can include some personnel changes, strategy sessions, and very large projects such as the Olympic bid and the Green Line LRT.

Nenshi said this is also why Calgary has more private meetings than similar municipalities, where many decisions will be made outside of council’s sight.

All in all, Nenshi does not believe this is a major issue though, and it is being brought forward by some councillors as a way to gain political points or get fundraising from certain groups.

He did vote against the one amendment, raised by Councillor Ward Sutherland, which allows for the invitation of personal advisors.

“It’s a ridiculous weaponized thing, there is no reason you would ever need that,” Nenshi said. “We heard a member of council today say there have been personal issues about him. There haven’t.”

Nenshi also brushed off claims of bullying in these situations, by saying if a councillor feels intimidated, “it’s because of their own behaviour.”

Ward 11’s Jeromy Farkas has been one of the most vocal on the number of closed-door meetings, saying that it’s unacceptable it happens so much in Calgary, compared to Edmonton or Toronto, and the content of the sessions is often off the rails.

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“We go off on topics and tangents that we have no legal reason being in there. Sometimes, there are uncomfortable decisions and discussions, but they are more for a political reason rather than a clear legal reason. So I want to take as much as we can from the learnings of other cities, and focusing on our own improvement.”

Nenshi agreed that sometimes the discussions go off-base.

“The chair, which is often me, needs to do a better job of reigning people in, as does the clerk and administration. That was a helpful suggestion today.”

But as the discussion on this one topic took about two hours Tuesday morning, the Mayor expressed his desire to move past the issue while talking to reporters outside the chambers.

“This makes it sound like some kind of star chamber back there, and it isn’t,” said Nenshi.

And during the meeting, while the questions dragged on, Ward 8’s Evan Woolley voiced his frustration, while motioning at Farkas.

“I didn’t hear about this almost ever on the door in the last election, and we’ve wasted the whole morning with all of these staff and all of these resources put towards this. It’s a waste of taxpayer’s money on a pet project.”