Meeting investigator appointed by town council

FORT FRANCES—In co-operation with other regional municipalities, Fort Frances town council passed a bylaw Tuesday night to appoint a regional investigator to look into any alleged violation of the Municipal Act regarding in-camera meetings.
The joint recommendation to appoint a meeting investigator came forward from the municipal clerks for the municipalities of Atikokan, Dryden, Fort Frances, Kenora, and Thunder Bay, clerk Glenn Treftlin said in an interview Monday.
Treftlin explained the Municipal Act has been amended so that as of Jan. 1, the act authorizes municipalities to appoint an investigator who has the function to investigate an independent manner, on a complaint made to him or her by any person, whether the municipality has complied with the act or one of their own procedure bylaws in respect to a meeting or part of a meeting that was closed to the public, and to report on the investigation.
Under the Municipal Act, the town has certain criteria it has to follow when conducting business in the absence of the public, and matters regarding town finances (property, bids for tenders, etc.), labour relations, and litigation can be talked about in-camera.
“If an elector, or in fact a member of the public anywhere in the province, feels that the council did business in-camera that was inconsistent with the criteria in the Municipal Act, they can ask for that to be reviewed,” Treftlin reiterated.
“A review request would go to our meeting investigator, and he would be the one to deal with and check out whether it is a frivolous request or whether it has merit,” he added.
“Then he would have to do a report to council on that after he concludes his investigation. Council has to make that report public.”
What happens as a result of the review and the determination made by the investigator depends on whether the town’s in compliance with the Municipal Act.
If it is, the matter won’t go any further; if not, “there’s some other avenues that can be taken by a member of the public,” said Treftlin.
Paul Heayn of Dryden will be the meeting investigator for the municipalities of Fort Frances, Atikokan, Dryden, Kenora, and Thunder Bay.
Heayn has no shortage of experience with municipal government, noted Treftlin.
He was the chief financial officer for the City of Dryden for 26 years, before which he worked eight years for a municipality in southern Ontario.
At Tuesday night’s council meeting, Mayor Roy Avis said he welcomed the appointment of the meeting investigator because it would help alleviate any public concerns about council allegedly doing what it isn’t allowed behind closed doors.
“I was very glad to see this legislation come forward, especially when we seem to have a lot of ‘secret documents’ floating around this town,” he quipped, adding that with a matter like the community clinic, for instance, some members of the public felt the town should be having its discussions in the open.
“If those people really felt that way—that there was business conducted behind closed doors—under this new act now they would have somewhere to go and try and find out whether we are conducting business improperly or not,” noted Mayor Avis.
Newly-elected Coun. Ken Perry pointed out that if a member of the public calls on the meeting investigator, the town pays the meeting investigator $50/hour, mileage at $.44/km, and other expenses, and wondered if charging a fee would incline those making claims to think twice about doing so frivolously?
Likewise, Coun. Rick Wiedenhoeft asked if multiple frivolous claims were made by individuals or groups, can there be any recourse for the municipality to recoup some of the costs?
“Originally, when we [the municipal clerks] were getting together and talking about this, we were considering whether, in fact, we would make a recommendation to establish a fee for an application,” said Treftlin.
“At the time, we wouldn’t know what the response would be, but we were giving the public an opportunity to demonstrate that it’s not going to be throwing a lot frivolous requests in our direction,” he added.
“However, having said that, if experience shows that there are those out there that are going to be making vexatious requests for an investigation, that’s going to come to light and the recommendation will quickly be that there should be some measure of a fee established to discourage that sort of thing.”
“I think the process we’re going to be using is correct,” said Mayor Avis. “We don’t want to be seen a putting any roadblocks up in having people make applications for this.
“Let’s test the waters. We might not get anything,” he added, noting that he’s confident the town has been “transparent” and won’t get any requests for review.
“I agree with Roy. If someone comes up with a legitimate request, we shouldn’t charge them $50,” said Coun. Wiedenhoeft.
Fort Frances CAO Mark McCaig said that since he’s been in that role, he, Treftlin, and deputy clerk Kathy Lawson often discuss what matters do and do not qualify as in-camera items when putting together the council agenda, and feels that thus far, the decisions have all been “appropriate.”
(Fort Frances Times)