Residents barred from Hamilton meeting about new city manager

A group of residents are fuming over what they say was an illegally held meeting to interview candidates for Hamilton's city manager job. But some city councillors say it was necessary to protect the identities of the people they were interviewing.

The clash over open meetings led some candidates to try to conceal their identity as they arrived

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

A Hamilton city councillor says some candidates for the city manager's job showed up for interviews in disguise on the weekend as some residents tried to get into a meeting the city was trying to keep private.

But those residents say they tried to attend because the city wasn't following provincial rules around open and accessible meetings.

City council's recruitment committee met at White Oaks Resort and Spa in Niagara-on-the-Lake Saturday. The committee was interviewing candidates for the city's top job, and the meeting was mostly in camera.

The opening and adjournment was technically in open session though, and the meeting was bound by the usual rules under the Municipal Act. Interested attendees — and a journalist — were refused entrance to White Oaks. The meeting time also appeared to change at the last minute.

Sam Merulla (Ward 4, east end) argues the secrecy was necessary. Many of the candidates have other jobs, he says, and don't want their employers to know they're interviewing for this one.

"Great work to those that created the circus," Merulla tweeted this weekend. In an email, he said "this nonsense is surreal."

"It was a highly private and confidential interview process with candidates applying in confidence who are presently employed and do not want to risk their present employment for seeking in employment in Hamilton as city manager," he wrote.

"We lost a great female candidate due to the negative press. There is a time and place for public input. Highly private and confidential employment interviews is not a place nor a time to expose highly qualified professionals."

Deanna Allain, an 18-year-old city hall watcher who showed up at the meeting, said the city handled this wrong. The city should have let the public in for the opening and adjournment, she said. There are ways it could have ushered candidates in through another entrance.

She wasn't interested in photographing and broadcasting them, she said. But the city also can't refuse people admittance to the public portion.

"We weren't going to descend on them with busloads of people," she said. "The whole point was it was a public meeting and they tried to make it incredibly inaccessible. They can go 66 kilometres away, but the public can still attend a public meeting."

Merulla acknowledged on Twitter this weekend that the opening and closing of otherwise in-camera meetings should be public. But he defended the secrecy overall.

Brad Clark (Ward 9, upper Stoney Creek) and Tom Jackson (Ward 6, east Mountain) agreed with him. Privacy laws trump the Municipal Act, Clark said in an email.

"Our responsibilities to protect the identity of potential candidates is paramount," he said.

"The Municipal Act does not supersede privacy laws in Ontario. When the mayor and council became aware of the potential for privacy breeches of our candidates, I would argue that it was imperative for the committee to act judiciously to prevent any candidates from being seen or photographed by a third party."

The Municipal Act says meetings have to be in the municipality or an adjacent one "at a place set out in the municipality's procedure by-law." In times of emergency, the city can hold meetings at "any convenient location within or outside the municipality."

Nrinder Nann (Ward 3, central lower city) tweeted a different opinion. What happened Saturday, she said, was a "failure of good governance and public process.

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

The city manager hiring process has been a controversial one in general.

Former city manager Chris Murray left last year for the top job in Toronto, and the city struck a recruitment panel with the chairs of city council's main committees. That panel is all white and has only one woman (Marie Pearson).

Nann and Maureen Wilson of Ward 1 (west end) tried to pause the process to make sure diversity was considered. Last week, city councillors turned that down. 

Wilson still has a motion coming to city council Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the Ontario Ombudsman is investigating a Jan. 16 meeting when city council discussed a Grey Cup bid in closed session.

An Ombudsman ruling also found last year that the city held two waste management committee meetings without telling the public.

About the Author

Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She has a particular interest in politics and social justice stories, and tweets live from Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca


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