Cape Breton councillor questions in-camera meeting process

At least one councillor has lost confidence in Cape Breton Regional Municipality's in-camera meeting process after multiple breaches of provincial legislation.

Coun. Kendra Coombes says she isn't confident CBRM's closed-door meetings always follow the rules

Coun. Kendra Coombes says there is often a difference of opinion between CBRM staff and the Department of Municipal Affairs over what constitutes a proper in-camera meeting. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

A councillor in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality is questioning the legality of some of the council's in-camera meetings.

Coun. Kendra Coombes said she's not confident CBRM's closed-door meetings follow the rules.

In 2015 the municipality changed its practice and started notifying the public after it was discovered that council had held 31 in-camera meetings over a span of 22 months.

Earlier this month, CBRM admitted to discussing a council pay raise behind closed doors. That's not allowed under the Municipal Government Act.

Motions were mistakes

Last week, council voted to release the minutes of four in-camera meetings held to discuss council pay, and the minutes make reference to decisions being made by motion. That is also not allowed under the law.

Coombes said the motions were unintentional mistakes.

"Sometimes councillors will forget themselves, thinking that we're in an open-session meeting and put forward a motion and each time that that's done, it has been withdrawn due to the fact that we're in camera," she said. "It's only happened a few times."

Coombes said there is often a difference of opinion between CBRM staff and the Department of Municipal Affairs over what constitutes a proper in-camera meeting.

For example, she said at a March 2017 public meeting, Coun. Ivan Doncaster suggested council go in camera to discuss changes to the travel allowance.

Staff and the mayor conferred and there was no clear decision on whether the topic could be legally debated in camera.

"Am I confident as of right now it's operating as it should? No," said Coombes.

She said the Department of Municipal Affairs advises council. "Oftentimes when you call them they will say, 'We're not lawyers, we can't give legal advice. Here's our interpretation of the [act]; however, you should talk to your solicitor and seek their legal opinion.'"

Elected officials wrongly considered personnel

She said she doesn't want a solicitor's opinion on it — she wants the department's interpretation. 

The act specifies eight topics that can be legally discussed behind closed doors. It says no decisions can be made in camera, except for procedural decisions or to give direction to staff. There's no penalty if the legislation is breached.

Cape Breton regional councillors voted last week to release the minutes of four private meetings after admitting the sessions didn't follow the rules under Nova Scotia's Municipal Government Act. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

This month, CBRM admitted to discussing council pay during four in-camera meetings, a topic that is not allowed.

CBRM solicitor DemetriKachafanas has said staff believed elected officials could be considered personnel, which is one of the topics that can legally be discussed behind closed doors.

He has since said the municipality was wrong it will not discuss council pay in private anymore.

Council voted last week to release the minutes of those four meetings and staff insisted no decisions were made in camera, so no harm was done.

In-camera minutes quietly made public

The minutes were quietly posted to the CBRM website on Thursday. 

But they imply that decisions are sometimes made behind closed doors.

In an Oct. 24, 2017, meeting on council pay, Mayor Cecil Clarke reportedly advised "there is no motion for or against this issue, therefore the result of the discussion is status quo."

The June 26, 2018, minutes also record a motion by councillors George MacDonald and Jim MacLeod spelling out details of a proposed council pay package.

The minutes note that the motion was withdrawn and it was agreed that staff would provide a report with options.

The CBRM's chief administrative officer, who is responsible for the staff and for the overall operation of the municipality, has not been made available for an interview.

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.