Ottawa

Ottawa police committees hold secret meetings

Ottawa's Police Services Board has been discussing police business behind closed doors for years at committee meetings that are never publicized and few people even know about.

Revelations come on eve of provincial consultations on police legislation update

Eli El-Chantiry is chair of the Ottawa Police Services Board. (CBC)

Ottawa's Police Services Board has been discussing police business behind closed doors for years at committee meetings that are never publicized and few people even know about.

The board has four standing committees — complaints, finance and audit, policy and governance, and human resources — and while the membership of the groups is voted on in an open session once every four years, the details of the meeting locations are not made public.

Coun. Eli El-Chantiry, the board chair, wrote in an email to the CBC that the committees meet "as required."

There have been three secret committee meetings so far in 2016 — more than the number of public board meetings. According to a list of topics sent to the CBC by police services board staff, 15 different topics were discussed, Subjects at these secret meetings included bias-neutral policing, a street check update and proposed amendments to the public rewards policy.

Last year, the committees met privately eight times and discussed at least 20 subjects including updates to policies on racial profiling and the traffic stop race data collection project — issues of significant public interest.

El-Chantiry wrote that "the board's committees are in the nature of advisory committees, in that they do not exercise any delegated authority to determine matters on behalf of the board." It is impossible to verify this statement as the minutes of these meetings are only provided to other board members, and only at the members' request.

Committees may also make recommendations to the board, El-Chantiry wrote.

'Citizen's right' to observe meetings

Stéphane Émard-Chabot, a lawyer who teaches and practises municipal law, said any committee meetings that move proceedings along "have to be open to the public." 

"That is a citizen's right to observe the functioning of municipal government in all its pieces, and it reflects the provincial priority to promote transparency and acountability."

He added that for meetings to be open, people need to be able to physically access the gathering, which "extends to the fact of knowing the meeting is taking place."

According to the provincial Police Services Act, "meeting of the police services board shall be open to the public .. and notice of them shall be published in the manner that the board determines." But the act does not specifically address whether committee meetings need to be public.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services said the government "understands that the Ottawa Police Services Board has its own policies regarding its (sub-)committee meetings."

Other police services boards across the province have similar committee structures.

Ottawa city council and all its standing committees, sub-committees and advisory committees are open to the public. Their dates, times and locations are posted on the city's website.

Not enough transparency, says police association

The Ottawa Police Association president said his organization often has trouble understanding how the police services board came to a decision.

"A recent example we're having is that the board chair has stated publicly that they were fully briefed in regards to a recent complaint that we put forward on the privatization of the court house," said Matt Skof.

But Skof said he doesn't know where or when this briefing occurred, although it is not known whether this issue was discussed at the committee level.

"We are finding that information is being relayed to the police services board in meetings that are either in-camera or meetings we're not able to attend. So it is difficult from our perspective to find out or determine how the police services board is making their decision."

Secret meetings latest issue facing board

The police services board has been under fire for other issues recently, in particular over how effectively the board regulates the police force.

A news story last month revealed Chief Charles Bordeleau asked a court staff member for the name of the prosecutor handling his father in-law's careless driving charge. (Bordeleau is married to lawyer Lynda Bordeleau, who acts as general counsel for Peel Regional Police Service. Her father is former Gloucester police chief Lester Thompson.)

Initially, El-Chantiry refused to look into whether the chief acted inappropriately, calling the suggestion to do so "a witch hunt." Days later, he reversed himself and personally moved a motion that the board ask the Ontario Civilian Police Commission to investigate the chief's conduct.

It's not the first time El-Chantiry has been criticized for appearing too chummy with the police chief, a role the board is supposed to regulate. In late 2010, El-Chantiry travelled to Finland for then-police chief Vern White's wedding.

Provincial consultations on police issues in Ottawa on Saturday

The revelations of the closed committee meetings come on the eve of public consultations being conducted by the province in Ottawa this weekend about how to update the Police Services  Act, which has not been overhauled since 1990.

Residents and stakeholders can attend a meeting in person Saturday afternoon, as well as fill out a wide-ranging online survey which includes a section on police services boards.

The province is looking at a host of issues, including: how to improve the relationship between police and community; the role of police in non-policing jobs, like court security (private security officers took over from police at Ottawa's provincial court months ago); how much education officers should have; and role of other professionals, such as mental health nurses should play in policing.

Have your say

What: Police Services Act consultation

When: April 2, 2016, 1 to 3 pm

Where: Old Ottawa South Community Centre
260 Sunnyside Ave.

Online survey: www.ontario.ca/form/police-police-services-and-community-safety-survey

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story stated that there have been 15 committee meetings in 2016, and 20 in 2015. This was incorrect. There have been three meetings in 2016 at which 15 topics were discussed, and eight meetings in 2015 at which at least 20 topics were discussed.
    Apr 01, 2016 1:03 PM ET

About the Author

Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at joanne.chianello@cbc.ca or tweet her at @jchianello.