Short list of up to 3 potential sites for Ottawa's central library to be kept secret

The Ottawa Public Library board will choose up to three potential sites for a new central branch — but doesn't intend to make them public until the end of the year.

Advocacy group calling for finalists to be made public, more transparency in process

The Ottawa Public Library board is in the process of finding a location for a new central library, to replace the current central branch on Metcalfe Street. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

An advocacy group is calling for the short list of potential sites for a new central branch to be made public after the Ottawa Public Library board decides on the finalists at its meeting Tuesday.

Emilie Taman, of the group Bookmark the Core, calls the process "hugely problematic" and wants more transparency.

"Without disclosing which the top sites are, I think it's going to be very difficult for the public to have confidence in the process. And that's been our biggest issue from the very beginning," she told CBC News.

In July, the library released a map of 12 sites being considered for a new central library. The properties, mostly privately-owned, are located between King Edward Avenue and Bayview Road, and all are within a few blocks of Queen Street.

3 shortlisted properties to be kept secret

At the board's July meeting, members approved two sets of criteria on which the sites would be judged: one for a facility that would house the city library, and another set for a library that would combine a city central library and the federal Library and Archives Canada. It's still not known when the city and the federal government will decide whether they will join forces in a new downtown library.

At Tuesday's board meeting, members will vote on whether to go in camera to discuss the evaluation of these 12 sites. They will then decide to move forward for more detailed discussions with up to three of the property owners.

However, it appears that even after the closed-door session, the board has no intention of telling the public which three sites are being considered for further study. Residents will only be told of the final choice at the end of this year, according to a library staffer speaking on background.

"The public already knows what the 12 sites are, so why we can't be told which are the top sites?" asked Taman.

Emilie Taman, a representative of the group Bookmark the Core, will be asking the library board not to discuss the site selection in camera, and to release the short list of finalists. (CBC News)
"If it's the case that we're not going to ever find out what they are, or we're not going to find out until after the top one has been finalized and chosen, I think that's problematic and it's reflective of a theme I think that we've seen throughout this process on the transparency point."

A fairness commissioner is overseeing the process of selecting a site for a new library to make sure it's open and trustworthy. According to an email sent by library CEO Danielle McDonald to board members late Monday afternoon, the fairness commissioner said the shortlist could be released.

"[The fairness commissioner's] opinion was that this is not a matter of fairness with respect to releasing the ranked sites publicly, but that it would not represent a best practice," wrote McDonald in the email.

"The site evaluation process is still open and the current ranking of sites may change through further due diligence."

Both board chair Coun. Tim Tierney and McDonald declined to be interviewed, although a spokeswoman said they would both be available to speak to the media following Tuesday's meeting.

Confusion over what closed-door session about

A member of Bookmark the Core, which advocates for — among other things — a new central library to be located in the traditional downtown core (as opposed to, say, LeBreton Flats), plans to argue against the board going in camera at tomorrow's meeting before the members vote on the issue.

Coun. Tim Tierney is the chair of the Ottawa Public Library board. (Jonathan Dupaul/CBC)
According to previous briefings from library staff,  the purpose of Tuesday's meeting was for board members to be debriefed on the criteria evaluation results and vote on moving forward with up to three of the front runners.

However, the library board meeting agenda describes the in camera item as "proposed or pending acquisition or disposition of land by the board with respect to the results of the central library."

That could make it sound as if board members will be deciding whether to buy or sell land, which isn't how this meeting was previously described, according to Taman.

"If you're going to go in camera, you'd better be really clear about what the justification is for keeping the discussion secret," she said.