In politics, no attempt at a good deed goes unpunished

The much-anticipated Ontario Ombudsman’s report on the process in which Billings council conducted the business of determining who would finish the term of a deceased councilor has now been made public and the previous council has had its fingers rapped in a “don’t do this again” sort of way.

While some people may make an effort to make this an election issue as the Ombudsman’s report was released part way through the campaign period, it’s interesting to note that everyone who was on the previous council, and consequently were subject to the Ombudsman’s criticism, is on the ballot for the October 27 municipal election along with a host of first-time challengers.

Once Councillor Tom Imrie explained why he had pushed for discussions about the candidates vying to fill the vacant council seat to be held in camera and away from public view, the agreement of the group to hold a “secret meeting” makes sense from the point of view of the good manners most of us had instilled in us as children.

Sometimes, and this is a case in point, being polite doesn’t square with proper due process, but it’s difficult to fault the council for the spirit that informed council’s decision to move into an in camera meeting on the issue.

Councillor Imrie has explained that he expected to discuss the health of one of the individuals who had applied to fill the vacant council seat. The mayor and the other councillors agreed that it would not be prudent to have this discussion about someone’s personal health status in public so the controversial “in camera” meeting ensued. It is ironic that in making this decision to do, as they saw it, the right thing they were consequently reported to the Ontario Ombudsman who confirmed that their motivation to not publicly discuss aspects of someone’s health that might possibly disqualify him/her from filling the office satisfactorily meant that they were at the same time committing a transparency error.

It’s hard not to be sympathetic to Mr. Imrie’s motivations and it is understandable that his council colleagues, with the best of intentions, agreed to his request and voted in support of the motion he proposed because of the particular circumstances and took the discussions in camera. The mayor had determined in his interpretation of exceptions allowed under the Municipal Act that discussion of the private aspects of someone’s health fell into one of the categories that allows councils to opt to meet outside of public scrutiny.

This motivation to not publicly discuss a neighbour’s health status—a fact that could easily be considered germane to the topic of who should fill a council vacancy—is precisely what is good about life in a rural community and, if elected councillors and mayor/reeve are a reflection of their community’s norms (as they certainly should be) then this makes perfect sense in that context.

However, such an action, however well intentioned, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny when measured against the level of transparency required of elected municipal officials.

There is no question about that and the Ontario Ombudsman has reinforced this with his report.

As it happens, there was no in camera discussion of anyone’s health concerns as Mr. Imrie and his colleagues had anticipated but it was this expectation that sent council behind closed doors in the first place where they ended up voting for their choice of councilor. This was certainly an error of judgment by the group, especially since their clerk-treasurer had previously advised them against pursuing this course of action.

This won’t happen again, certainly not in Billings Township.

But the well-intentioned naiveté that underscores the event is in and of itself touching. The sign at the top of the hill in Kagawong that declares it to be “Ontario’s Prettiest Village” could perhaps be amended to also read “and nicest and well intentioned village.”

It’s an irony that anyone following the story now knows that someone in contention for the council position possibly had health issues and, doubtless, there will be many people hard at work in an attempt to determine who this was, precisely what Mr. Imrie and his council colleagues were attempting to avoid.