Wrist slapped and lesson learned says the former Mayor of Warfield.
Bert Crockett, a 12-year village politician, was speaking about the BC Ombudsperson’s annual report which calls out his council directive to hold talks and a vote by phone in private.
The municipal watchdog looked into the matter and concluded the business should have been on record as a special meeting and carried out in a public venue.
Released in June under the title “Lines are Now Open,” according to Ombudsperson Kim Carter, Warfield council held a special meeting by telephone, didn’t record it, and failed to take necessary steps to ensure people were aware of the meeting and could listen in.
The meeting in question was held to discuss the refund of recreation fees, her summary states, noting the investigation found the village didn’t follow provisions under the Community Charter related to open meetings, notice of meetings and electronic meetings.
“Basically we never made a resolution at the council meeting to have that telephone call,” said Crockett. “So there’s no record and everything you do has to have a track record.”
The phone call was to ask everybody how they felt after the discussion at council, he added.
“To give them a couple days to digest before we actually took the vote – to make sure everyone was comfortable with their decision.”
It was that action that had “Jacques” (the report maintains confidentiality) lodging a complaint with the provincial office, saying he tried to get an explanation as to why the meeting was closed and was told it was conducted in accordance with the Community Charter.
Dissatisfied with the reply, “Jacques” contacted the ombudsperson because her job is to probe complaints about maladministration.
Her findings show the Community Charter was in fact, not followed. The charter is the rulebook for municipal government and procedures, and states notice of a special meeting must be given at least 24 hours in advance and include the date, time, place of the meeting and must describe the purpose of the meeting.
Additionally, open telephone or teleconference meetings have limitations – meaning they can’t be in a space that is out of the public eye or ear, and minutes must be recorded by delegated municipal staff.
None of the requirements were adhered to in the Warfield case, Carter maintains in her report.
“It was not done by protocol according to Robert’s Rule of Parliament (Order),” admitted Crockett, referring to the most commonly adopted parliamentary authority in the English-speaking world. “But it was part of a learning curve that everyone goes through, there was no malice in our intent.”
He said next year the ombudsperson report could be quite lengthy with so many new councils at the table following the Nov. 15 civic election.
“A lot of newly elected officials are not up to speed on all the bylaws and protocols and they phone each other in a friendly fashion,” Crockett explained.
“The next thing you know somebody’s going to challenge that,” he continued. “In our case, it was a sensitive subject and we all knew it was sensitive. I just wanted to make sure everyone was comfortable in their own skin and there wasn’t a knee jerk reaction because there could be consequences. So I said, ‘Take a couple of days, and I’ll call you.’”
Carter ends her report saying her office discussed the conclusions with the village, drew its attention to the Community Charter, requested the municipality comply with the provisions in the future and asked staff and council members to develop guidelines and procedures for the conduct of electronic council meetings.
Current Warfield Mayor Ted Pahl says one of the benefits of being new at the job is learning protocols.
“In camera was one of those areas we researched to understand when we go in camera,” he explained, noting the three instances being employee-related, property-purchases and land alterations, or legal contracts and decisions. He added, “Unless it fits these criteria, we do not go in camera.”
“Unless it fits these criteria, we do not go in camera.” camera,” added Pahl.
Carter released the 35th annual report June 25, showcasing investigations concluded with provincial public authorities in 2014/15. The report highlights public complaints in sectors ranging from local government to large provincial ministries.
“Each year, our annual report shows the kind of help we provide all British Columbians, including the most vulnerable people in society,” she said in a news release. “In light of our 20-year anniversary of municipal oversight, this year’s report also features additional examples of our work resolving problems at the municipal level.”