It was with some alarm that I became aware of a recent notice of motion to discuss local changes to the rules around the publication of voting by members of council on matters dealt with in-camera.
Some years ago, I attended my first meeting of Vernon city council. At a certain point the motion was made to move ‘in-camera.’ The mayor and the councillors rose and left the chambers for parts unknown.
Where were they going? What topics were so important that the public was being excluded from the debate? Why all the secrecy? I remember feeling a little uncomfortable with the whole concept of in-camera.
As time went by, I had the opportunity to serve in the governing councils of my profession and became acquainted with the concept and indicated use of in-camera sessions.
We recently became aware of how our elected officials voted on the decision not to renew the contract with the Okanagan Landing firefighters. This was an in-camera matter. Normally only decisions made are reported to the public, not the actual vote. Because some councillors felt the need and justification to reveal how they voted on an in-camera matter, we know how everyone voted, something we normally would not know. It would seem those councillors desired to distance themselves, for perhaps political reasons, from what surely has turned into a controversial action by council. So what is the problem you may ask?
As soon as any councillor votes no on any matter in open council, the most inquisitive members of the public, the media, will want to know why. For the most part, a councillor will attempt to justify their stand with some explanation. Likewise, a councillor who has revealed their in-camera vote will face inevitable questions by the media, however in this case the answers may violate the rules regarding the publication of the details of in-camera discussions. So why is this a problem?
Some of the information available to council during in-camera meetings, if made public could adversely effect on going negotiations concerning land, litigation or labor: the areas of concern most often discussed behind closed doors by council. The decisions taken in-camera are made public, but the debate and voting results are not. This is to protect the reputations and interests of all parties involved with in camera matters.
If councillors fail to own and defer to decisions made in-camera, they put the reputation of the city at risk as well as those individuals who are most affected by those decisions. It will be interesting to watch the still potential debate on the issue on what to make public from in-camera sessions of Vernon council: a controversy sparked by a few members of council choosing to reveal how they voted on the confidential matter of the decision not to renew the contract with the Okanagan Landing firefighters.
I assume the council discussion will be lively and certainly interesting, but will probably be held behind closed doors in order to avoid the unintentional release of details of the original debate.
Unintended revelations would be otherwise very difficult to avoid, which could only add fuel to the fire so to speak. It gets really complicated! Perhaps, it would have been simpler if all of our elected officials just followed long-established protocols and kept confidential that which should have been kept confidential in the first place.
Former city councillor