Nova Scotia

Private planning sessions at resort not a good look for CBRM council, says political scientist

Cape Breton Regional Municipality's mayor says a three-day council and staff retreat at a local resort is an important first step in creating a strategic plan, but a political scientist says the sessions are "a kind of lobbying" that should not be held outside the public eye.

Meetings are 'a kind of lobbying' and should be held in public, says Tom Urbaniak

Cape Breton Regional Municipality councillors met privately at The Lakes at Ben Eoin resort this week for strategic planning sessions. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Cape Breton Regional Municipality's mayor says a three-day council and staff retreat at a local resort is an important first step in creating a strategic plan for the next four years, but a political scientist says the sessions are "a kind of lobbying" that should not be held outside the public eye.

CBRM Mayor Amanda McDougall said council is meeting privately with representatives from various business and social agencies and a couple of local businesses in order to get a better perspective on future budget deliberations and long-term community goals.

"The intent of that was to really understand what's happening on the ground, but outside of municipal jurisdiction, per se," the mayor said.

"If we understand what's happening in our community and truly grasp what the difficulties are, the issues, the questions, the good things, when we go into our council setting ... we have a better idea there how our decisions are going to impact the wider community."

Objections 'absurd,' says mayor

For example, McDougall said, council met with representatives from the chamber of commerce, the Cape Breton Partnership and the Ally Centre of Cape Breton during a session Wednesday at The Lakes at Ben Eoin Golf Club and Resort.

They also met with representatives from Doktor Lukes coffee shop to get a small business perspective and an employee of Colbourne Auto Group to get big business perspective, she said.

Rodney Colbourne owns the auto group and also owns The Lakes resort.

McDougall was elected CBRM mayor last October. (Cape Breton Regional Municipality/Zoom)

McDougall said there is nothing wrong with meeting privately with a local business to discuss what will be a public strategic plan.

"That's absolutely absurd. We talk to businesses every single day. It just so happens that Rodney Colbourne is an owner in many different businesses ... I don't think it is fair to begrudge somebody because they have many businesses."

'This is just day-to-day business'

She also said council is not required to meet publicly if it is holding a workshop.

"We workshop all the time," the mayor said. "We hold meetings all the time that are not publicly announced or listed. This is just day-to-day business."

McDougall, who campaigned on encouraging more public engagement in municipal business, said council has held some workshops publicly, such as budget talks and sessions on council and committee meetings hosted by Cape Breton University political scientist Tom Urbaniak.

But she said the strategic plan will be drafted behind closed doors and then taken to the public for further input.

"We need to really put our heads down, put things on paper, show the public when we come out of this, that yes, we have been listening to you — not only during campaign time, but every single day — and then do the work with the public and say, 'Help us fine-tune this plan.'

"So by no means is the public not being involved."

Cost of retreat unknown

At least some of the council members are staying overnight at the resort and some meals are being catered.

McDougall said she does not yet know what the cost of the meetings will be, but said it is important to get away from the day-to-day grind of city hall.

"The cost is really insignificant," she said. "It's a matter of a few grand."

Urbaniak says municipal councils must meet in public, with limited exceptions under provincial legislation. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Urbaniak said the strategic planning meetings appear to breach section 22 of the Municipal Government Act.

"Municipal councils, when they gather to deal with public business, have to meet in public, unless the items fall under particular categories," he said.

Councils can meet in-camera for sensitive personnel or labour relations issues, legal issues, land sales or public safety.

The open-meeting provisions are backed by a 1991 ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada, said Urbaniak.

No penalty for private meetings

There is no penalty under Nova Scotia's legislation if a council holds its meetings in private, despite the law, he said.

"The penalty is largely political."

However, the political science professor said CBRM council meeting privately with a select few private businesses or social agencies looks wrong.

"No doubt the intervenors are thinking about the public interest, but to the extent that they are representing their particular needs, it is a kind of lobbying, and this is one of the reasons why we have the open-meetings provisions in municipal legislation in Nova Scotia and elsewhere in Canada."

Not the first time

Urbaniak said CBRM has a long history of holding public meetings in private.

In 2006, a group of councillors met before council meetings under former mayor John Morgan to discuss upcoming issues.

Former CBRM councillor Vince Hall drew criticism in 2006 for holding private meetings with other councillors, saying they were just having a cup of tea together. (CBC)

They denied they were holding official meetings and said they were just having a cup of tea together.

CBRM came under regular criticism under two-term mayor Cecil Clarke for holding dozens of in-camera meetings without notifying the public and for discussing council pay behind closed doors.

Urbaniak said he is a little surprised the newly elected mayor is holding these meetings despite council's history, especially with post-pandemic government spending expected to ramp up in the near future.

He said the municipality should be setting priorities with the public in order to be ready when the federal and provincial governments start to boost the economy.

CBRM council has a lengthy history of in-camera meetings, including dozens held under former mayor Cecil Clarke. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

"This is like slipping on a banana peel," Urbaniak said.

"When we, as much as possible, need the goodwill of the community and need people to be pushing in the same direction, to now be distracted by a lack of transparency, that's really unfortunate."

Public sessions 'healthy for local democracy'

It would be better for council to hold sessions in public, not just to avoid a perception of favouritism, he said.

"It would be really healthy for local democracy to be able to have a window on these discussions and deliberations," said Urbaniak. 

"It really seems council is taking some important steps this week to lay out the future of the municipality, to lay out its priorities for the next four years, and if that isn't subject to the open meetings provisions of the [Municipal Government Act], then I don't know what is."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Ayers

Reporter/Editor

Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years. He has spent the last 16 years covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at tom.ayers@cbc.ca.

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