Behind closed doors

Closed door meetings, whether at home between spouses or a parent having "the talk" with their child, or in the workplace between a manager or supervisor and an employee, attract attention and suspicion. What's going on? Why is the door closed? Why can't I know what's going on? Are they talking about me?

Sometimes it's bad. Someone is being disciplined or fired. Job cuts are being planned or implemented.

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Sometimes it's just business. The confidential information regarding a client is being discussed. Someone is either looking to buy the business or has already made the purchase.

Sometimes it's a good thing, like discussions about future hires, promotions and pay hikes because business is booming. Deserving employees might be up for important industry awards. Other employees might be discussing their plans for early retirement.

Most people understand why meetings have to be held behind closed doors in the private sector, but still demand unrestricted access to what is being shared at in-camera meetings held by government and public sector officials. Those demands are often unrealistic and unfair.

All levels of governments, as well as public sector institutions such as hospitals and health authorities, schools, colleges, universities, libraries, airports and economic development agencies, handle sensitive and confidential information about their clients and their employees. Being a taxpayer does not give one the automatic right to be privy to that information or to meetings being held to discuss the business affairs of those institutions, particularly when public knowledge would cause harm to the institution, its employees and/or its clients.

At present, UBC professors and Vancouver news media outlets are demanding to know why the school's president abruptly resigned, barely a year into a five-year term. Lawyers and human resources professionals know it's because both sides signed a confidentiality agreement restricting both the departed president and the university's board of governors from releasing details. Those agreements are common in both the public and private sector when there has been a falling out between senior management and their owners and/or board of directors.

That being said, governments and the public sector should conduct their business as much in the public eye as possible. Prince George city council is taking some encouraging steps towards increased transparency. Although mayor and council won't decide anything until early 2016, they are looking at various options.

This new city council has already held 13 of its 31 official meetings behind closed doors. Last year, 15 of the 45 council meetings were in camera while the ratio was 19 out of 47 in 2013. At this pace, there will be 20 private city council meetings held before the year is out.

The Community Charter, the provincial laws governing how municipalities conduct their business, allow councils broad freedom to close their meetings for everything from labour relations to legal matters, land sales and purchases to conflict with the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

Along with matters that fall under those exemptions, it actually isn't that hard to guess what was on the agenda of some of Prince George city council's in-camera sessions held this year. One or more of those meetings was probably dedicated to the dismissal of Beth James as city manager. One or more meetings likely involved the hiring of Kathleen Soltis to replace James. At the closed meeting on

May 25, council decided not to renew the city's contract with Initiatives Prince George. The discussion remains confidential but the result of the vote, all in favour except for

Coun. Albert Koehler, was later released. That is the only piece of information that has come out from the 13 in-camera meetings this year.

There is already a high level of transparency when it comes to the public business. Wages and benefits for workers and managers are public knowledge. The expenses filed by mayor and council are also a matter of public record.

But city council could be doing more than sharing the results from one vote to account for its 13 closed meetings so far this year. And taxpayers should also manage their expectations when it comes to transparency, realizing that city council is bound by other laws to conduct some of its business in private.

In other words, the doors should be open as often and as much as possible. That should be the default. They should be closed and the results of those meetings kept private only when completely necessary.

--Managing editor Neil Godbout

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