December 23, 2021

Ombudsman releases report on Saugeen Municipal Airport

Jon Robinson

— By Pauline Kerr, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Walkerton Herald Times

Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé has posted findings involving the Saugeen Municipal Airport Commission (SMAC) regarding public meetings.

In essence, the ombudsman determined that the COVID-19 pandemic may have resulted in different ways of holding meetings, but that did not free SMAC from responsibilities under the Ontario Municipal Act, 2001 regarding providing consistent public notice of meetings, including electronic meetings, providing a means for the public to observe meetings except in regard to certain matters set out in the legislation, and re-admitting the public following completion of in-camera portions of such meetings.

The ombudsman stated in the report, “I recognize that municipalities and local boards have faced unprecedented challenges in adopting their operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, including many cases pivoting to conducting meetings electronically using new technologies. However, as my office has noted in previous closed meeting investigation reports, the requirement to hold meetings that are open to the public is not suspended in an emergency.”

Dubé recommended that SMAC adopt a procedural bylaw governing its meetings and providing for public notice of all meetings, and further, that the commission ensure the public is able to observe all open portions of meetings.

The complaint to the ombudsman alleged that SMAC contravened open meeting rules by “not providing consistent public notice of its electronic meetings including instructions on how to access the meetings … and that members of the public were unable to rejoin meetings after the commission rose from closed session.”

The ombudsman found that the commission is a “local board” and contravened the Municipal Act when it “held meetings without providing adequate public notice, and by failing to pass a procedural bylaw governing its meetings. The commission also contravened the Municipal Act when it failed to adequately notify members of the public about how to request readmission to the portion of an open meeting following a closed session.”

In the course of the investigation, the ombudsman’s office determined that the commission held a number of Zoom meetings for which no notice was provided to the public, and no instructions for the public to log in to access the meeting. The commission held a meeting on Jan. 13, 2021 that had been scheduled for Jan. 20, 2021, without providing notice of the change. Prior to COVID, SMAC had held in-person meetings the third Wednesday of each month; the public was able to attend and notices of the meetings were posted ahead of time.

The report stated “the chair (of the airport commission) explained that although the commission endeavoured to post notice of meetings on its website or on Facebook, this may not always have occurred as the commission lacked full-time staff support and commissioners were dealing with a number of urgent matters.”

The report further stated that the chair was unable to confirm if notice was provided for six meetings including two special meetings.

The ombudsman recognized that SMAC “did not intend to exclude the public” and commended it for its efforts to “increase transparency” through changes to its public notice process and adoption of a means to ensure members of the public can observe the open portions of a meeting that follow a closed session.

The ombudsman’s report indicated the office had received full co-operation during its investigation.

(Photo: Pauline Kerr)