Emo Council investigated by Ombudsman Ontario

By Elisa Nguyen
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Council for the Township of Emo was found to have not contravened the Municipal Act, 2001 or its own procedure by-law when it held an education and training session, said Paul Dubé from Ombudsman of Ontario in his report released January this year.

The training session was related to its reformatted budget. In the opinion section of the Ombudsman Report released January this year, Dubé said that the session satisfied the requirements of the “education and training” exception since council received training on the new budget format and did not materially advance its business or decision-making.

“While this was not a meeting subject to the requirements of the Act and the Township’s procedure by-law, I nonetheless encourage the Township to publicly post notice and agendas for training sessions, and to continue to record minutes,” Dubé wrote in the report.

The complaint alleged that council’s closed session discussion on May 28, 2022 did not fall within any of the prescribed exceptions in the Municipal Act, 2001 and that the Township did not provide proper public notice of the training session.

According to the procedure by-law, the Township must give notice of regular council meetings in meeting agendas to be posted at the Emo Post Office and the Municipal Office. Special council meetings must be posted as well, at least 48 hours in advance, unless otherwise agreed to by a majority of council.

Ultimately, the Town did not provide public notice of the training session.

On June 21, 2022, the Ombudsman office advised the Township of their intent to investigate the complaint.

The Town’s procedure by-law and relevant portions of the Act were reviewed, in addition to the training session agenda, materials and correspondence related to the session, and open session minutes. No minutes were taken during the closed session discussion, said the report.

All five members of council as well as the Interim CAO/Clerk-Treasurer, the Special Projects Coordinator, and the Public Works Superintendent were interviewed by Ombudsman Ontario.

Dubé said they received full cooperation in this matter.

“Those interviewed stated that the session’s purpose was for council members to better understand how to read and understand the new budget document. One interviewee compared the presentation to a university-style lecture,” read the report.

“Our interviews suggest that council members did not interact with each other during the session, and only asked questions of staff. My Office found no evidence that council discussed or debated any issues, and determined that council did not make any decisions or provide any directions to staff during the session.”

Under section 3.1 of the Act, a meeting may be closed to the public if it is both held for the purpose of educating or training members of council, and if members do not discuss a matter in a way that materially advances the business or decision-making of council.

Dubé said that the interviews conducted indicated that the purpose of the session was to train council on how to understand the new budget format, therefore the first requirement for a closed session was met.

Regarding the second requirement, Dubé explained that “materially advances” refers to the extent at which the discussions move forward the business of the municipality, or that are intended to lead to specific outcomes. “Similarly, council is likely to materially advance business or decision-making when it votes, reaches an agreement, provides direction or input to staff, or discusses or debates a proposal, course of action, or strategy.”

Dubé said that an exchange of information is unlikely to materially advance business at the training session; Council was found to have not discussed or debated any of the information present, and did not vote or provide instructions to staff. Therefore, the second requirement for a closed session was met.

The report also noted that while the training session was not technically a meeting for purposes of the Act, recording minutes of the open portions of the session increased the transparency of the council’s actions and assisted with the Ombudsman review of the complaint.

“I commend the Township for going beyond the formal requirements of the Act and making additional information available to the public. As a best practice, and to help avoid confusion and increase the transparency of council’s actions, the Township should consider posting public notice and agendas for education and training sessions, and recording minutes during such sessions,” said Dubé.

The full report has been made available to the public on the Township of Emo website and at www.ombudsman.on.ca.