Nova Scotia

As CBRM violated in-camera rules, documents show governance was 'pretty sloppy,' says prof

The Nova Scotia government is making changes to its training materials for municipalities after CBC News reported that Cape Breton regional council had dealt with its own pay in camera four times.

'One takeaway is that the governance of CBRM is not a well-oiled machine,' says Tom Urbaniak

The Nova Scotia government is revising municipal training materials after Cape Breton Regional Municipality councillors were found to have discussed council pay behind closed doors. (George Mortimer/CBC)

The Nova Scotia government is making changes to its training materials for municipalities after CBC News reported on Cape Breton regional council's in-camera practices.

In 2018, Cape Breton Regional Municipality admitted it breached the Municipal Government Act by dealing with its own pay in camera four times over a period of two years.

There is no penalty for breaching the Municipal Government Act, but the province now says training materials for councils are being revised to specifically forbid discussing pay behind closed doors.

Those training materials are expected to be provided to CBRM as soon as possible and will be rolled out to all councils after the general municipal elections scheduled for this fall.

An access-to-information request by CBC for correspondence covering the two years in which council pay was discussed in camera show some senior staff were OK with it, but does not clearly say whether any staff advised against it.

"One takeaway is that the governance of CBRM is not a well-oiled machine," said Tom Urbaniak, a political science professor at Cape Breton University. "It's pretty sloppy."

CBRM forced to change twice

In 2015, CBRM had to change its practices to start notifying the public about in-camera meetings after it was discovered council had held 31 secret meetings over a span of 22 months.

The municipality was not saying ahead of time when it was meeting in camera or what was being discussed, and that is not allowed under the law.

In 2018, after CBRM revealed it had been discussing council remuneration in camera, officials said they believed council could do that under rules allowing in-camera discussion on personnel matters.

After CBC reported that, the Department of Municipal Affairs issued a ruling saying council members are not staff or personnel.

Cape Breton University political scientist Tom Urbaniak says despite ambiguities in the Municipal Government Act, elected officials are expected to err on the side of transparency. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

The department said remuneration for elected officials must be discussed in open public meetings.

In a recent email, the department said it provided CBRM with a training session on the Municipal Government Act — including a session on in-camera meetings — in April 2018.

Departmental documents don't specifically say council pay can't be discussed in camera, but the training materials emphasize that municipal government should be conducted in public as much as possible.

Urbaniak said access-to-information documents from CBRM at the time do not show whether staff, the mayor and councillors understood that.

"Even though there are ambiguities in the Municipal Government Act, the expectation is that our elected officials will err on the side of transparency," he said.

Mayor Cecil Clarke says the agenda review committee only makes changes to clarify the meaning of words, not to change the fundamentals of a policy. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Despite that, the documents show the municipality's chief administrative officer and clerk believed council pay could be discussed in camera.

The documents also show the solicitor seemed to disagree, but they also show he deferred to the clerk on that.

Urbaniak said that's interesting, but isn't as important as what council members thought.

Councillors need to take responsibility, says prof

The documents show very little, if any, discussion among councillors on whether they could — or should — discuss their own pay behind closed doors.

"Councils themselves have to take responsibility for their effectiveness as governing bodies," Urbaniak said.

"These are elected officials and they have a public trust to uphold."

The issue was discussed briefly at a public council meeting in March 2017, when the mayor decided not to refer a discussion on remuneration to an in-camera session after senior staff disagreed on whether that was allowed.

Brief experiment

In any event, council pay was discussed in camera three times after that — twice after the April 2018 training session by the province.

"There was that one little experiment with going public and then it went back into confidential session," Urbaniak said.

"Unfortunately, the documents don't give us a clear indication about the sequence of events leading from that public meeting to putting this back into confidential session."

The mayor's response

Mayor Cecil Clarke said after the Department of Municipal Affairs issued a clear ruling late in 2018 that council pay must be discussed in the open, CBRM changed its practice.

"When the department had made an indication it should be public, it quickly became public and that's the standing practice and will be going forward," he said.

Clarke said CBRM is more open than it used to be and he said council goes beyond the requirements of the legislation, for instance, by holding public budget consultation sessions.

"Council ... as far as procedures and activities, has evolved and council will evolve because some of the complexities of issues today require to have that level of openness and transparency, and that's a good thing," he said.

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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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