Ontario's Ombudsman says Thunder Bay city council must ensure it does as much business as possible in public.

Thunder Bay resident Stefan Huzan recently launched a complaint about closed-door council meetings after city hall used "solicitor-client privilege" as a reason to conduct business in private.

Huzan said a planning matter should have been discussed openly.

"There's a higher level of responsibility to let the public know what council is discussing."

Linda Williamson

Spokesperson Linda Williamson says the Ontario Ombudsman recommends that municipal councils err on the side of openness when it comes to meetings. (LinkedIn)

Ontario's watchdog agrees, and said Thunder Bay city hall should do as much business as possible in open session.

Ombudsman's office spokesperson Linda Williamson said using solicitor-client privilege, litigation, or pending litigation as an excuse, should not be done lightly.

"We've found a number of cases where that was the exception that was cited, but it was more sort of a fear that, 'oh, down the road this might result in legal action.'”

Williamson said the Ombudsman recommends municipal councils err on the side of openness when it comes to meetings.

"Councils sometimes extrapolate and talk about usually the potential litigation to close meetings when there's no actual litigation pending or threatened."

Opportunities to reduce closed door meetings

Thunder Bay city clerk John Hannam said council usually holds about 34 closed meetings per year.

"There certainly are some [cities] that hold fewer closed meetings than we do, and there are certainly some that have as many or more than we do,” he said.

"It's driven by the business that we have, and not by anything else. People shouldn't read much [into] what the number is ... We're managing that information properly and going into closed session when it's appropriate to do so."

Hannam added he thinks "there are some opportunities for us to reduce the frequency of [closed door] meetings.”

The decision rests on the information at hand, he noted.

"Some of that information you need to be kept confidential, so we'd have to look at the particular circumstances of what was presented, and what wasn't."

If there is trouble deciding on whether to open or close a meeting, Williamson said councils should do the former.

"When in doubt, open the meeting. Just because something has come up that might involve something that's mentioned in these exemptions — whether it's land or a personnel matter or labour relations, or litigation of some sort — that doesn't always mean that you have to close the meeting. The law does not say that,” she said.

“The law says that you can close the meeting in these circumstances. So, [the ombudsman] always reminded councils that this should be interpreted narrowly and, when in doubt, you should try to err on the side of openness."