Niagara Region infringed journalist’s rights: Ombudsman
July 18, 2018
18 July 2018
Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé today called on the Regional Municipality of Niagara to apologize publicly to a local journalist and a citizen blogger for seizing their property and ejecting them from a council meeting last December. The region’s actions were unreasonable, unjust, wrong and contrary to law, Mr. Dubé’s investigation found.
Recommends apologies to reporter and citizen blogger, procedural improvements
(TORONTO – July 18, 2018) Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé today called on the Regional Municipality of Niagara to apologize publicly to a local journalist and a citizen blogger for seizing their property and ejecting them from a council meeting last December. The region’s actions were unreasonable, unjust, wrong and contrary to law, Mr. Dubé’s investigation found.
Although regional officials have the power to bar people from municipal property in some instances, the municipality “has an overriding responsibility to act in accordance with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms when exercising those powers,” the Ombudsman writes in Press Pause, his report on his investigation of the incident.
Noting that “the region had no policies or procedures in place to address improper conduct during a council meeting, trespass, seizure of personal property, or protecting confidential information during closed meetings,” Mr. Dubé makes 14 recommendations to “to better ensure that fairness, accountability and proper consideration of the law guide its actions in future.”
His report recounts how “chaos ensued” at regional council’s meeting on December 7, 2017, when it was discovered that a digital recorder belonging to a citizen blogger had been left running after the meeting was closed to the public. Officials seized the device as well as a laptop belonging to a newspaper journalist, called police and unfairly ejected both men from the meeting, the Ombudsman found.
He recommends the region apologize publicly to the journalist “for acting unreasonably and without legal justification, and for infringing his Charter rights,” and to the citizen blogger “for rushing to judgment and failing to follow a fair and reasonable process.”
The meeting was also illegal under the open meeting rules of the Municipal Act, the Ombudsman found, because staff locked the building doors while the meeting was still ongoing. As well, the region violated the Municipal Act when it failed to pass a resolution stating the reason for closing the meeting to the public.
The Ombudsman received a total of 11 complaints related to the incident, and launched the investigation December 14, 2017. The investigation team conducted 52 interviews, including regional staff and council members, as well as other witnesses. They also reviewed relevant documents and video, as well as the recording from the citizen blogger’s device.
Although regional officials co-operated with the investigation, Mr. Dubé commented that the “adversarial approach” and actions of its external counsel complicated matters. Council did not hold a meeting to discuss his report, as it is entitled to do, and the external counsel did not provide a response to his recommendations, he says in the report: “As a result of this omission, I cannot report on whether or not the region intends to implement the improvements I am recommending.”
The region is required by law to pass a resolution to deal with his finding about the closed session, and the Ombudsman strongly encourages council to consider all of his recommendations as soon as possible, and “announce publicly, by way of resolution passed at a public meeting, how it intends to respond to each recommendation.”
The recommendations, which build on some improvements the municipality has already made, include that the region:
Clarify its procedural by-law, trespass policy and related policies to clarify the definition of “improper conduct,” and circumstances that might warrant seizure of property or expulsion from a meeting. “These improvements would avoid arbitrary decision-making, and render the expulsion process more accountable, transparent, and fair,” Mr. Dubé writes.
Update and clarify its procedural by-law to reflect recent changes to the Municipal Act.
Develop procedures to ensure public access doors are not locked during meetings
Make audio or video recordings of all closed meetings.
Report back to the Ombudsman on its progress in implementing his recommendations every six months.
The Ombudsman is an independent, impartial officer of the Ontario legislature, established in 1975, who resolves and investigates public complaints about individual and systemic administrative issues related to provincial government bodies and municipalities, universities and school boards. The Ombudsman has been investigating complaints about closed municipal meetings since 2008 and general complaints about municipalities since 2016. Of the more than 7,600 general complaints received about municipalities since January 1, 2016, most have been resolved without need for formal investigation; this case is the Ombudsman’s fifth formal investigation of a municipality.
The Ombudsman’s recommendations are not binding, but are overwhelmingly accepted and implemented by public sector bodies. The Ombudsman follows up on his recommendations and publishes updates on their status in his annual reports and on his website.
For more information, contact:
Linda Williamson, Director of Communications