Earlier this week, after the Glenway “Lessons Learned” meeting, we were treated to Mayoral waffle of the highest quality. Tony Van Bynen was on top form when he told the Newmarket Era:
“There were some concerns expressed regarding the amount of information released to the public surrounding the fight, and the Town’s ability to purchase the land years ago. However, negotiating strategies do need to take place behind closed doors.”
"It is something that needs to unfold as the dialogue progresses. The rationale for making a decision not to buy the golf course, people still want to know what that was. That’s something Council still needs to deal with, in terms of how that process can be brought forward.”
It is way too late to do anything about Tony Van Bynen. Secrecy is in his banker’s DNA. Openness is as foreign to him as disclosing a client’s bank balance to a stranger.
John Taylor explains the process
In some respects, John Taylor is Tony Van Bynen in training. He loves talking about process and procedure. Take this gem from September 2014 when he was berating the abrasive former councillor Maddie Di Muccio whose husband, John Blommestyn, had publicised the existence of a confidential memo about the Glenway West lands.*
Taylor claimed that the overwhelming majority of matters discussed in closed session are brought into the open, eventually seeing the light of day:
“…in-camera discussions go through a process and most of them eventually, if not all of them, eventually, come out of camera. You go through a process that takes time and staff review it and they report back to us how to bring it out in its entirety or partially and at what stage… And just to conclude. I think it is important to understand the process and my point is that these things go through a due course. We dealt with something perhaps a little quicker than we used to and that is fine but there is a process we go through for these things and the vast majority come out entirely or partially into the public domain."
Some previously closed material does make its way into Information Reports (which are buried in the Town's website) but the version of events described by Taylor is pure fiction.
The Town’s Solicitor, Esther Armchuck, told me in May 2014:
“Closed session discussions or directions given by Council in Closed Sessions remain confidential unless Council decides to make some or all of those discussions or directions public.”
This begs the question: does this actually happen in practice? Or does the system work by keeping everything in closed session confidential until challenged through a Freedom of Information request?
Declassifying confidential information
There is, in fact, no routine process in Newmarket for disclosing closed session records, say after a certain number of years. Instead, Freedom of Information requests are often used to prise open the oyster and get access to closed session records.
So, earlier this week, I put in a request (as did the Glenway Preservation Association) for disclosure of the minutes and all the records relating to the possible purchase of Glenway golf course by the Town in 2008. I also resubmitted an earlier request from September 2014 which had been rejected.
There needs to be a wholesale review of how the Town deals with closed session matters. Of course, no sensible person would dispute the need for the Town, or indeed any municipality, to have private space to discuss sensitive issues such as buying or selling land. There is provision for this in legislation. But this should not be an excuse for putting a padlock on information indefinitely.
It cheats the public. And information is, in any event, often traded by councillors when it suits their purpose. We are offered nuggets of information on the condition we don’t pass it on to anyone else.
The Council can, on its own volition, make all or part of a closed session public and, obviously, councillors will take advice from staff to ensure the legal and financial interests of the Town are protected.
But that is very different from keeping things secret to avoid embarrassing individuals or to conceal inaction or some other failing.
I hear that in the fall the Town will start posting all Freedom of Information requests on line with sections redacted as necessary, making it easier to gain access to information.
This is a major step forward in loosening the grip of secrecy on our Town.
*You can read the exchange by opening Documents in the panel top left and navigating to Newmarket Documents. Open Debate on Disclosure of Information, September 2014.