By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express
The Ontario Ombudsman has confirmed what members of the public have been saying for months: Oshawa city council improperly closed its December meeting, and the discussions that took place advanced city business away from the public eye.
The report, which came after four separate complaints to the ombudsman, slams city council for going into closed session on Dec. 17 for an education and training session with the Oshawa Power and Utilities Corporation (OPUC).
The vote to go into closed session passed 9-2, with Councillors Amy McQuaid-England and Dan Carter voting against closing the meeting. Councillor John Neal did not vote due to a conflict of interest and Councillor Bob Chapman was absent from the meeting.
The ombudsman tossed out council’s claim that the meeting was to discuss “local distribution company trends,” when in reality the majority of the meeting was actually spent being informed about recent merger discussions between the OPUC and Veridian.
Discussions about a possible merger, which also includes Whitby Hydro, were not made public until late April.
A presentation was made by then-OPUC CEO Atul Mahajan, along with a legal representative regarding the talks with Veridian that had begun in early 2015. The pair of presentations informed councillors on everything about the proposed merger, including projected revenues, debt levels, dividends and possible savings.
The topic of monetizing a portion of the newly merged company, which would involve selling a portion of the combined utility, was also discussed. The report notes that one councillor noted that “this would need to be considered going forward.” It is not clear from the report which councillor made this statement.
Following the presentations, councillors were allowed to ask numerous questions, many of which related to the ongoing merger talks, all of which were under a non-disclosure agreement signed between OPUC and Veridian. It is during these questions that one councillor asked if Whitby Hydro had been contacted.
The non-disclosure agreement, signed between OPUC and Veridian for the original discussions of a merger, did not involve the Whitby Hydro Electric Company.
During these questions, the report indicates one councillor, who The Oshawa Express has confirmed is McQuaid-England, interrupted, noting that these questions could “affect the decision making of council.” When the point of order was rejected by Mayor John Henry, she left the meeting.
“I just was very uncomfortable in the meeting and my objections were being ignored,” McQuaid-England says.
“I tried to participate as long as I could until it was just too uncomfortable for me to stay. I didn’t feel like the information should have been discussed in an education session.”
The ombudsman’s investigator agreed.
“Although council did not debate the proposed merger or make a decision, the information presented and the questions asked materially advanced council’s business and decision-making,” the report reads.
After receiving the draft report near the end of last month, council defended its decision, claiming that due to the non-disclosure agreement between the OPUC and Veridian, the meeting needed to be closed.
The ombudsman swatted off the defense, saying they were not persuaded, noting this was a very “restrictive interpretation” of the exception for closing meetings for education and training sessions. It is also noted that there are currently no existing exceptions for education and training sessions that would allow councils to discuss sensitive business negotiations, such as those protected under a non-discloure agreement, in private.
“Council’s suggested interpretation of the education and training exception would mean that a council is permitted to discuss any topic during an education and training session,” the report reads.
“This is clearly not the intention of the plain wording of the (Municipal) Act,” the ombudsman continues.
Several recommendations are listed in the report, many of which insist council garner a better understanding of the closed meeting rules and work harder to keep meetings open according to the rules. It also expressed that council should work on “reporting back” following closed sessions, a practice that involves providing a general summary in open session of what occurred during the closed portion.
For McQuaid-England, she says this is not a time to “get into a battle with the ombudsman” and that council should take the recommendations as a chance to improve.
“I think that we all make mistakes and I think we should learn from this and find better ways to be open,” says McQuaid England.
“I think that any time a provincial body gives us criticism or gives us opportunities to do better, I think that we should try our best to improve. I think that council should be looking at all the recommendations.”
Mayor Henry did not return The Oshawa Express’ request for comment prior to press deadline.