For almost two hours Monday night, city council and staff met behind closed doors – a meeting that Coun. Mason Ainsworth says should never have been held in secret.
“I don’t think people would be happy if they knew what was going on in that closed session,” Ainsworth said.
The Ward 3 councillor said the topic of discussion was an update from the recreation project team related to the aquatic centre that is under construction at 255 West St. On the city’s public agenda, the meeting was deemed a ‘legal’ matter and noted Robert Allen, a partner of MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects, would be in attendance.
“(It’s) about accountability of council and staff and of the municipality as a whole,” Ainsworth said. “If we’re talking about the rec centre, the timeline, money … those discussions can happen in the public realm and I don’t think they should be hidden away for political reasons, which is it’s an election year and some people don’t want to be embarrassed.”
Orillia Mayor Steve Clarke countered that, in his opinion, "to hold that particular meeting in open session we would have been potentially irresponsible." He noted council can only hold closed sessions for personal, personnel, real estate or legal issues that are deemed sensitive. "I am very comfortable" that Monday night's meeting was closed.
The mayor said he would "always support (Ainsworth's) or anyone else's right to bring that discussion or debate (about the merits of closed meetings) forward. That needs to be debated. That's democracy."
He also noted Ainsworth has options. "There is a recourse and that is to go to our closed-session investigator," said Clarke. "That's the direction to be taken. He can do that. To use other tactics, I would truly question the motives."
While he chose his words carefully, Ainsworth seemed to hint that the new recreation centre would not open on time this summer as expected. “Part of the issue is the timeframe, but there’s a lot more to it. Sadly, I can’t touch on the details.”
Ainsworth said at the beginning of the closed meeting, which started at 5:15 p.m., he immediately asked for support from his council colleagues to hold the discussion in an open forum. Only Coun. Sarah Valiquette-Thompson and Rob Kloostra supported him.
Council finally wrapped up that closed-door meeting at 7 p.m. and moved into council chambers for their regular council committee meeting. Council's first order of business was to receive the report from their in-camera session. Ainsworth, however, asked for a postponement so that staff could prepare a report on the timelines and to permit “an investigation into the closed session meeting.”
The plan to postpone failed, but Ainsworth was successful in adding an amendment that would see staff complete a report, to be presented at the Feb. 26 meeting, related to the construction schedule of the recreation facility. The report is to include an overview of the meetings held by the recreation project team including dates, who was in attendance and what happened at the meetings since mid 2017.
Ainsworth later elaborated saying he had concerns about who attended meetings related to the recreation centre. “They’re staff meetings, so they’re private meetings. At the same time, we have specific members who are on that team, but others (i.e. councillors, mayor) sitting in. Are they getting access that the rest of council doesn’t have months before? Is that acceptable?”