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B.C.’s Ombudsperson investigated the District of Fort St. James on issues of transparency

“Partial compliance isn’t a complete answer,” stated the Ombudsperson’s annual report
B.C. Ombudsperson Jay Chalke. (Tom Fletcher/Black Press)

District of Fort St. James was given a ‘lesson in transparency’ by B.C.’s Ombudsperson, as stated in their annual report.

As per the report, Fort St. James resident Charlie, whose name has been changed to protect privacy, contacted the Ombudsperson’s office in regard to the municipal office holding closed meetings without making meeting minutes available to the public.

“Charlie felt the District’s actions were in violation of the community charter,” stated the report.

The resident had spoken with the former interim Chief Administrative Officer about her concerns and attended a council meeting where her questions were not answered. The report stated she was “frustrated” about the lack of transparency from the district and reached out for help.

“We reviewed the district’s procedures bylaw and noted it was silent about procedures to be followed in closed council or other meetings to the public, and about reporting decisions made in closed meetings,” as stated in the report.

READ MORE: Barring public from open council meetings exceeded authority: B.C. Ombudsperson

When the issue was brought up to district staff, they responded by saying the district was in compliance with sections 80 and 90 of the charter. These sections provide exceptions for holding open meetings.

However, when the Ombudsperson’s office reviewed council meeting agendas, they found agenda items did not identify the in-camera item as required by the charter, bar one meeting.

“The district referred us to several meeting minutes which did record a resolutions to go in-camera as well as the relevant community charter citation. It did not provide any further details about what was discussed or the decisions made,” the report further stated.

Meanwhile, municipal staff also informed the Ombudsperson’s office that they provide notice of meetings via email. However, members of the public need to contact the district office to add their names to the email list, and the Ombudsperson’s office could not find any information about this practice on the district’s website.

In order to resolve the issue, the district was asked to — revise its procedures bylaw to correct the process used to close meetings; review closed meeting minutes for release in a timely manner; update training materials to reflect procedural changes; and post information on its website about how to receive council and other meeting minutes via email.

District staff have agreed to the recommendations set out by the Ombudsperson’s office. The Courier has reached out to the district for a comment.

Editor’s note: B.C. Ombudsperson’s annual report used the name Valerie in its initial published version. The name was randomly selected in an attempt to anonymize this case summary. It is not the name of the individual who filed a complaint against the District of Fort St. James. As there is a resident by that name in the district who regularly attends public meetings, the Ombudsperson’s office changed the name to Charlie in an update to the report, to avoid confusion. An apology was also issued by the Ombudsperson’s office to Valerie.

Aman Parhar
Editor, Vanderhoof Omineca Express

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