10/30/2012 01:01 EDT | Updated 12/30/2012 05:12 EST

Ombudsman says local councils should face fines or jail if they meet in secret

TORONTO - Local politicians in Ontario should face fines or even jail time for meeting in secret without good reason, Ombudsman Andre Marin said Tuesday in a report that lashed out at several municipal councils across the province.

There are no penalties for violating the law that requires municipal councils to conduct their business in public, as there are in many American states, so some councillors across Ontario don't take the issue seriously enough, complained Marin.

"Some states provide that councillors are liable for prosecution, fines and jail, for meeting secretly, and that really elevates the principal of transparency and puts it on a pedestal," he said.

"Right now municipal councils, some of them at least, play loose with the rules because there are no consequences. If there was a consequence such as a fine or imprisonment, councillors would think twice about breaking those rules."

The government watchdog found the majority of municipal councils in Ontario follow the rules, but said some are "shockingly secretive, suspicious and resentful of the very idea they can be investigated" for meeting behind closed doors.

"In London, an example out of the Twilight Zone, is the obsession by some councillors with obtaining the names of people who complained to the office, calling them accusers, (talking about) the right to face your accuser, and referring to ombudsman oversight as creating a police state," said Marin.

A series of closed-door meetings held by city council in Sudbury did fit within the exemption for "personal matters about an identifiable individual." However, every councillor asked to have a lawyer and ten refused to participate after being told they could not have legal representation for a meeting with an Ombudsman's investigator.

"Three of 13 councillors chose to participate and the rest snubbed the office," said Marin.

Municipal councils in smaller communities were also willing to break the rules and meet privately when it suited their needs, added Marin.

"We had the egregious example of the township of Leeds-Thousand Islands where they went to a closed meeting to give themselves a 60 per cent pay raise," he said.

"It’s the kind of thing you just can’t make up."

Marin also singled out councillors in the southwestern town of Amherstburg for routinely engaging in improper voting behind closed doors, and cautioned local politicians in many communities about private meetings with developers and others with business before their council.

Municipalities in Ontario can opt out of having Marin's office oversee their compliance with the open-meetings law and hire someone to do it for them, something he said has led to a patchwork of different approaches that should be replaced with one investigative body.

Right now, Marin's office provides the service for 191 of Ontario's 444 municipalities, while the others have gone out on their own.

"Some of them have hired ex-mayors and ex-senior bureaucrats on a contract that cannot conceivably allow them to do their job independently, which is why I’m asking the provincial government to start thinking about ways to provide more backbone to the system," said Marin.

"Some municipalities use the opportunity to create an infrastructure which has a chilling effect on citizens challenging them on their decisions to go behind closed doors by charging money for someone to file a complaint."

The Ombudsman also recommended all municipal councils keep audio or video recordings of their meetings, especially the private ones, to make sure they are following the rules.

"Some councils are models of transparency; others are shockingly secretive and even defiant in the face of public complaints," said Marin.

"Transparency in government should not depend on where you live...(or) on the whims of local government."