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Jan. 23, 2022 | Sunday
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Records of NOTL's emergency group kept secret
File photo.

Niagara-on-the-Lake's emergency team is keeping the official records of its meetings secret from the public and restricting councillors' access to the documents, The Lake Report has learned.

The reports are being kept in the CAO and lord mayor's boardroom, with strict guidelines that they're not to be removed or copied. It's a practice that some councillors are not happy about.

A memo from interim CAO Sheldon Randall to councillors on May 21, while the town was still in Phase 1 of the COVID-19 recovery, said: 

"Minutes of the emergency control group meetings have been made available for your review. Due to the confidential nature of the minutes, they will remain in a binder in the CAO and lord mayor’s boardroom and must not be removed or photocopied."

"We encourage you to come in and read through the details of each meeting and the reasoning behind each decision being made."

Since a state of emergency was declared March 23, Niagara-on-the-Lake council has delegated many of its decision-making powers to Randall and Lord Mayor Betty Disero, who are part of the emergency operations control group.

The group, which includes several senior town officials, has special powers and has met frequently — daily at the height of the pandemic — to make quick decisions that normally might be made by council.

The documents being withheld are the official records of those meetings.

The roles of various groups and individuals are detailed in the town's 78-page emergency response plan, dated January 2015. 

Disero said she thinks the documents will be released when COVID-19 crisis is over.

"I suspect once the emergency is over, there'll be a full report and all the minutes will be put on it. For the moment they just stay confidential, but members of council can all come in. I saw Normand (Arsenault) there today looking through them. Clare (Cameron)  was in the other day looking through them," she said.

"They'll be on a public agenda as soon as we can."

When asked why the documents are being kept confidential now, she didn't have an answer.

"On that particular question, you'd have to ask the head of the emergency group, which is (deputy fire chief) Jay Plato. He can explain to you what the process is."

Plato could not be reached before press time. However, NOTL fire chief Nick Ruller did respond to an email sent to Plato, Randall and Disero.

He said as far as he's aware, provincial, regional and municipal emergency group minutes are not being shared by any municipality.

"I am unaware of any jurisdiction that makes them public," Ruller said. "The reason is that discussions often include detailed information about enforcement, specific businesses, personal information regarding individual staff (COVID testing, vulnerability, etc.), redeployment of staff, etc."

He pointed out that the decisions from those meetings are shared with council during COVID updates at regular committee of the whole and council meetings.

"In the interest of transparency, our (emergency group) recommended that the minutes be made available to council via the lord mayor/CAO office."

Regarding the email to councillors and why the documents could not be copied, Disero said she only remembers that town council was invited to look at them.

Coun. Wendy Cheropita is among those who isn't happy with the decision.

"I wasn't comfortable with the way it was handled," she said, adding some fellow councillors feel the same way.

"There's a number of us that do find that troubling. I think it doesn't feel right," she said.

She said it's also making it hard for elected councillors to access the documents during a pandemic.

"It's really important for me that the public have access to information and that council have access to all information, because you can't make proper decisions unless you can, and I just have not had the time or felt that comfortable about going into the office."

She said it's not the first time the town has asked them to come in to the office to read a document.

"There was one other time when a similar situation was handled in the same way," she said. "And that was when we were recruiting for a supplier or vendor to do our strategic plan. And we had to go into the office and read through the binder ... because it could not be released electronically, we were told, because of the confidentiality of it. And maybe that one was correct. That one kind of felt like, 'OK, I can understand that because maybe the RFP process would not be part of the public record.' But this one should be."

She added, "That's when, you know, under times where a few people are able to have control — and there's many levels of government where that is the case, so this is not so much focusing on our municipality — it is really easy to have a little bit of abuse, when you have a lot of power. And so, I think even moreso the reason for visibility and transparency — for all of us."

Coun. Gary Burroughs said it was councillors who asked to be able to view the records.

He said he’s not sure which councillor made the request, but that he would “assume it was Stuart McCormack," who resigned from council on Canada Day.

Burroughs said he hasn’t had a chance to view the documents, but he intends to.

As far as transparency goes, he has his own issues with the emergency control group.

“Well, I have a problem with the emergency group not consulting with council anyway,” Burroughs said.

Coun. Clare Cameron said she’s read “almost all” of the meeting minutes. “They’re extensive,” she said.

She said she’s not sure why they’re not public.

“From the beginning, I have struggled to understand why they couldn’t be public,” she said.

“But I also understand that the region has treated their (emergency committee) minutes also as confidential, so if members of the public wanted to see them, it’s the kind of thing where an FOI (freedom of information) request I suppose might be appropriate.”

She said after reviewing the records herself, she thinks “there could be value in making them public.”

Coun. Allan Bisback said he hasn’t read the documents either, but isn’t concerned about them being released to the public.

“I don’t have a concern on the documents being released to the public,” he said.

“I must admit, I’ve not seen the documents. I feel that decisions that have been made, we as councillors have been briefed on a regular basis on those decisions.”

He said as far as confidentiality from the public, he assumes discussions may have included specific businesses.

“I don’t have a position on whether this should be made public,” he said, noting he’s more concerned about the outcome of the meetings.