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Closed-session loopholes need tightening, says Calgary city councillor

Procedure bylaw changes being recommended would close loopholes seen in Calgary city council’s closed session meetings.

The item is being proposed by Couns. Sonya Sharp and Andre Chabot for technical approval at Tuesday Executive Committee meeting.  If it passes muster, it will move on to an upcoming full meeting of council for debate and final approval.

The proposed amendments to the procedure bylaw would end virtual or remote attendance at closed-session meetings. It would also remove the authorization for council members’ staff to attend these meetings.

Previously, a separate motion had to be made to exclude council members’ staff from closed session meetings.

Chabot, councillor for Ward 10, said the proposal stems from a recent law and legislative session that reminded councillors of their responsibilities on confidential matters.

“There was some talk about how there may be some loopholes within the current bylaw that that would, I guess, facilitate information getting out, or not prevent somebody else from listening in,” Chabot told LiveWire Calgary.

He said remote participation, while convenient, presents inherent challenges in verifying who is actually listening in on the meeting. Chabot said the change limits the chance of someone who shouldn’t be privy to the information from hearing it.

As far as staff, Coun. Chabot said they may sign a non-disclosure agreement or confidentiality agreement. They aren’t, however, bound by legislation to keep matters confidential.

“Which is why I wanted to close that loophole of limiting the opportunity for members staff to participate in those in-camera meetings unless there’s something specific that they need to contribute to the conversation,” he said.

“In which case, we could then invite them in to participate in the discussion of the particular subject matter and then ask them to subsequently then step away when the matter is concluded.”

Question of trust

Chabot suggested that instead of having a blanket opening for staff members that must have an exception created to exclude them, it was easier to create one for when they’re essential to the conversation.

When asked if it creates the impression there’s a lack of trust among council members and staff, Chabot pointed to turnover among Ward staff that could pose an issue.

“It’s hard to try and uphold that with staff when they’re no longer in your office,” he said.  

“And sometimes, often, when staffers are leaving, there’s a reason why they’re leaving. And it’s not necessarily always on good terms.”

Ward 11 Coun. Kourtney Penner said it’s something she’s interested in exploring further. She said she’s not against the changes, provided they at least examine potential exemptions for virtual attendance.

“I think we’re going to probably have to have something that is, ‘except under exceptional circumstances’, sort of, as agreed upon by the majority of council or something like that,” Penner said.

With Covid still present, potential quarantining may be necessary. Maintaining some flexibility for other situations might be warranted, she said.

As far as staff members, Penner said hers don’t participate in closed session meetings. They just don’t have the time, she said.  She respects that other councillors may have different arrangements with their team.

“I’m open to listening to my peers on that,” Penner said.

In the end, the goal is to protect sensitive information, Chabot said.

Chabot said in his previous stint on council the rules around closed-session meetings were more restrictive. Still, he said, confidential material leaked its way out of council.

“It’s better to have at least a little more rules than fewer,” he said.