Nova Scotia

CBRM council privately discussing pay a big no-no, says prof

Remuneration discussions during in-camera sessions prompt criticism from political science professor.

'Council remuneration is a matter for public debate,' political science professor says

Tom Urbaniak, a political science professor at Cape Breton University, says council pay is meant to be discussed publicly. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

The Cape Breton Regional Municipality's elected officials appear to have contravened legislation by discussing their own pay behind closed doors.

Council discussed remuneration during in-camera sessions four times in the last two years, according to a list provided by the municipal clerk.

Tom Urbaniak, a political science professor at Cape Breton University, said that's a no-no.

"Council remuneration is a matter for public debate," he said. "It's not the same as collective bargaining with a union."

The Municipal Government Act permits councils to hold in-camera meetings that exclude the public and media, but the legislation only offers eight general reasons a council may do so.

They include discussions on sale or lease of property, setting minimum price at a property tax sale, personnel matters, labour relations, contract negotiations, litigation, legal advice eligible for solicitor-client privilege, and public security.

According to clerk Deborah Campbell, council met to discuss remuneration in camera on Dec. 7, 2016, May 8, 2017, Oct. 24, 2017 and June 26, 2018.

The sessions led up to this week's general committee meeting, where council decided to boost its pay between 17 and 24 per cent in order to compensate for the loss of a federal tax-free salary provision.

As reasons for the in-camera meetings, the municipality cited personnel in all four cases, and for two meetings they also cited contract negotiations. In one case, they also cited acquisition, sale, or lease of property.

Why pay can't be discussed privately

Urbaniak said councils aren't allowed to discuss their own pay behind closed doors for any reason, and definitely not under the guise of "personnel" matters.

He said elected officials are not employees of the municipality.

"Council itself is the employer," Urbaniak said.

There may be occasions when discussion on council pay could drift into one of the permitted in-camera topics, he said, but they would be rare.

For example, council could be discussing its pension and the implications for council members who already have private pensions might be considered a privacy issue, Urbaniak said.

Or, a council could be talking about the legal implications of a pay issue.

Some exceptions to the rule

Mark Peck, executive director of planning, policy and advisory services for the Department of Municipal Affairs, said Urbaniak is correct.

Council remuneration is not on the list of permitted topics for in-camera meetings under the Municipal Government Act, Peck said.

And councillors are not considered personnel, he added.

"They're not employed, they're not personnel. They're elected," said Peck.

But as Urbaniak also noted, there may be times when councils can legitimately touch on their own pay provisions behind closed doors, Peck said.

"There's probably some nuances ... on remuneration that could be discussed in camera, but as a whole, just the general topic of remuneration of council is not to be discussed in camera."

Mayor Cecil Clarke says remuneration has traditionally been discussed in camera. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Mayor Cecil Clarke said council pay has always been discussed in camera, and he said it's always been considered a personnel matter.

"The standing practice and procedure has been that it was treated as related to the same as an employee," he said.

The mayor said it was a longstanding practice that he inherited from previous CBRM councils, and no one has asked him to change it.

"If there's a desire to have a broader compensation review, then I'm totally open for that and totally open for it to be in open session," Clark said.

But it's not something he would champion himself.

"There's no desire to change anything, so what's to champion?"

About the Author

Tom Ayers

Reporter/Editor

Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for 33 years. He has spent the last 15 years covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at tom.ayers@cbc.ca.