LANSDOWNE – The Ontario Ombudsman has ruled the council for Leeds and the Thousand Islands held an illegal meeting through email this year.
It’s the second investigation by the Ombudsman in 2016 (read about the first investigation here) and the third occurrence where the council has been admonished for advancing business through electronic correspondence.
At issue was email discussion following a February 12, 2016 meeting over a rezoning application for the expansion of the Pilon Horse Farm to allow it to expand to 30 horses from six and the building of a boat dock.
The recommendation from the February 12, 2016 Committee of the Whole meeting did not get adopted entirely at the February 17, 2016 council meeting, but instead was approved with conditions.
The township had adopted a practice of publishing quorum emails on the municipal website and then moved toward a “live blog” where it was visible in real time to the public. These discussions involve a quorum of councillors. The investigation noted that Coun. Liz Huff and Coun. Harold Emmons did not send emails but did receive them.
In this case, Ombudsman Paul Dube wrote there were 10 quorum emails in February regarding the application, but were difficult to find and were not archived on the website.
Dube ruled that the email correspondence did constitute a meeting and, as such, violated a number of meeting rules including public notice, resolution for a closed meting and the taking of minutes.
“Despite the finding and recommendations of my Office in two 2015 reports, council has continued to use emails to advance council business or lay the groundwork necessary to exercise the power of authority of council,” he wrote.
Dube said the emails don’t allow the public to watch the process in action, like they would at an open meeting.
“The public has the right to be present and observe local government decision-making in process, rather than read about it after the fact. The quorum emails violate the public’s right to observe local government decision-making in process.”
Dube added that, during interviews with staff and councillors, some conceded that the emails didn’t allow the public to observe local government in action.
The Ombudsman has made four recommendations: the township cease the practice of using quorum emails, that councillors ensure business is not advanced or groundwork laid through email, that advancing business be confined to meetings and members of council be vigilant in upholding the rules of the Municipal Act.