Peat burning ban discussions should have been public: reeve
New county Coun. Jim Wiese questions June 26 council decision
A discussion about a peat-burning ban at the June 26 county council meeting should not have been held in camera, reeve Charles Navratil said.
Newly elected Coun. Jim Wiese questioned the move at his first meeting as councillor on July 17 when reviewing the minutes from the June 26 meeting.
“When I had my orientation you told me that anything that was done in camera was either land, legal or dealing with personnel,” he said. “I don’t see how it falls under any of those categories.”
Navratil said the idea behind holding that discussion behind closed doors was that there would be legal implications of banning peat burning, but when pressed conceded the issue did not necessarily fall under the category of “legal.”
“OK, possibly it doesn’t,” he said. “Possibly it shouldn’t have happened, maybe, in camera.”
Following the in-camera portion of the June 26 meeting, councillors passed a motion to proceed with enacting a bylaw that would completely ban burning peat within Westlock County.
The Municipal Government Act allows councils to hold discussions in private, usually under three broad categories of land, legal and personnel.
The discussion about the peat-burning ban was listed on the agenda as a “legal” item.
“I don’t see how it falls under legal if there isn’t anything on the books,” Wiese said. “Unless there’s a lawsuit on the books, I don’t see how it falls under legal.”
The way the MGA is written, it refers to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act to outline the reasons a council can go in camera. The FOIP act allows for a public body to withhold a wide variety of information and close council meetings for a wide variety of discussions — even for topics that don’t fall under land, legal or labour.
Navratil said after the meeting that the county’s policy with respect to in-camera discussions is that the public would only be excluded in cases that fall under one of these three categories, and that it’s a fairly strict policy.
However, Westlock County council has used the discretion available to it under the MGA to exclude the public from discussions that don’t fall into these three categories — for example, when the council is discussing agenda items for joint meetings with other municipal councils it excludes the public so as to foster better inter-governmental relationships.
“Why we do that is you don’t want something getting out in the paper before you’ve discussed it with other municipalities,” he said. “That can make for very hard feelings.”
Navratil also suggested to Wiese that discussions are held in camera for fear that members of the media might misrepresent what the discussion entails.
“If we have the media here and we’re talking about it, and they pick up on it, if they just take some small portion of it, they can blow it all out of proportion,” he said.
He could not provide any example of when this had happened, and said this has not been a problem for several years.
A draft bylaw will be presented to council at a future meeting, although there is not yet a definite timeline.
“When we talk about the bylaw, that won’t be in camera, that will be an open meeting,” Navratil said. “But we’re waiting on some legal advice on that.”
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