City didn't break law with out-of-town hiring, but meeting was 'illegally closed': report

Ontario's ombudsman says Hamilton city council did not break the law when it hosted job interviews at a Niagara-on-the-Lake resort in February. But the portion of the first meeting that was supposed to be open to the public was "illegally closed."

The controversial meetings led to 77 complaints — the most of any meeting

Deanna Allain, Aiden McIlvaney, Lana Miran and Eric Gillis went to White Oaks in Niagara-on-the-Lake in February to attend the public portion of a city manager recruitment steering committee meeting, but White Oaks wouldn't let them inside. (Deanna Allain)

Ontario's ombudsman says Hamilton city council did not break the law when it made a controversial decision to host job interviews at a Niagara-on-the-Lake resort in February.

But the portion of the first meeting that was supposed to be open to the public was "illegally closed," found Paul Dubé.

The city's recruitment committee met at White Oaks Resort and Spa to interview candidates for city manager. Most of the meeting was in camera, but a busload of residents made the almost hour-long journey anyway, saying the city wasn't following provincial rules around open and accessible meetings.

In response, one city councillor told CBC some of the candidates vying for the city's top job showed up in disguise.

The ombudsman said public interest in the hiring process grew after the committee's decision to hold its meetings more than 60 kilometres from Hamilton, but when the bus arrived they found the meeting, which was originally scheduled to start at 9 a.m., had actually begun at 8:30 a.m. so the public portion was already over.

Dubé also noted some of the citizens recorded a video of White Oaks staff telling them the meeting was private and ordering them to leave the property.

In a report released Friday, Dubé said the controversial meetings led to 77 complaints — more than any other meeting the province's ombudsman has ever investigated.

He found the city failed to make sure members of the public could attend the open portion, including not providing enough notice of the changed start time.

"The city attempted to convey appropriate instructions for opening the meeting to the public, but failed to ensure that the instructions were passed on to the White Oaks staff or followed," wrote Dubé. "Ultimately, it is the city's responsibility to ensure that the meetings of council and its committees comply with the open meeting rules and legislation."

Dubé noted the city had posted the new meeting time on one page of its website, but not the committee's page. He added the city "cleared up" the confusion for another meeting held on Feb. 23 where the public did manage to attend a brief open session.

Ombudsman has investigated 5 Hamilton meetings

As for whether or not the committee was able to host a meeting in private and out of town, the ombudsman said there's no legal requirement that council committee's hold their meetings within the city.

"The Municipal Act allows parts of the recruitment process to take place outside the public spotlight," states the report, adding "most hiring interviews take place in private for good reason."

Dubé explained hiring typically takes place behind closed doors in order not to deter applicants and to attract the best candidates.

"The city has a practical and legitimate interest in maintaining confidentiality during the recruitment process," he wrote.

That's the opinion two city councillors shared at the time of meeting, with Ward 4 representative Sam Merulla tweeting "Great work to those that created the circus" and adding the city had lost a "great female candidate due to the negative press."

But other councillors shared a different take. Nrinder Nann (Ward 3, central lower city) tweeted that what happened at the first meeting was a "failure of good governance and public process.

"Until a meeting officially goes in camera, it must indeed be accessible to the public."

Dubé issued the following three recommendations:

  • That council members should make sure open meeting rules and the city's own procedural bylaws are followed.
  • That the public has access to all open meetings of council and committees.
  • That the city update its procedural bylaw to make sure public notice is given for all committee meetings.

The city is also required to pass a resolution on how it intends to respond to the ombudsman's recommendations.

Dubé notes the complaints and investigation into the recruitment meetings aren't a one-off for Hamilton. He says his latest report marks the fifth time this year that his office has looked into a closed meeting held by the city.


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