BC court ruling shows local government meetings need more transparency, legal expert says

BC court ruling shows local government meetings need more transparency, legal expert says

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A legal expert is calling for more transparency from local government after a recent court case overturned building permit decisions by the town of Rossland, British Columbia.

On Jan. 16, the Supreme Court of British Columbia ruled that the community of West Kootenay — home to more than 4,000 people near the Canada-U.S. border — must accept development permit applications from a resident for allow the removal of timber from its four properties.

The court’s decision says the city council “acted in bad faith” in rejecting the motions.

Based on the minutes of council meetings on July 12 and August 9, 2021, Judge Lyndsay Lyster wrote that “the motivations and reasons of council members are quite evident.”

The decision said the city had rejected the applications of developer Warren Hamm, even though the city council believed that the applications complied with local Rossland statutes and that it would be illegal to reject them on the basis of a “misinterpretation ” of the official community plan (OCP) to be rejected.

“Forbidden objective”

The judge added that after the denials, the council passed a new tree management charter that bars it from applying for similar development permits in the future.

“They imposed obligations on the petitioners [Hamm’s companies] is not in the official community plan to prevent deforestation, which they found to be in poor taste,” Lyster wrote. “That amounts to an inappropriate goal.”

Hamm’s attorney, Jesse Gelber, based in Trail, B.C., said he was able to transcribe the council meetings in question thanks to the city’s practice of holding virtual council meetings and release his video recordings for public access during the COVID-19 upload peak on YouTube. pandemic.

“If we didn’t have that record, it would have been very, very difficult to present the reasoning to the court or what was going on in the minds of the decision makers,” Gelber said.

“If it hadn’t been recorded on YouTube, it would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to achieve the result we achieved.”

The virtual council meeting in Rossland, British Columbia was held on August 9, 2021. The video recording of the meeting is still available on YouTube, which allowed Warren Hamm’s lawyer to transcribe the statements mayor and members of council. (City of Rossland/YouTube)

No legal obligation to provide minutes

British Columbia’s Local Government Act requires municipalities and regional districts to prepare legible and accurate written minutes and make them available to the public, but it does not specify the level of detail in these minutes. and does not require local government meetings to be videotaped and upload images. to video sharing sites.

Duff Conacher is the founder of Democracy Watch, an Ottawa-based open government advocacy group, and holds a law degree from the University of Ottawa. He said that unlike federal and provincial governments, local governments are not legally required to produce verbatim written records of what the legislature has said. The documents are known as Hansard in Canada and other Commonwealth countries.

“If you don’t have those kinds of records, it’s pretty easy to hide malicious decisions,” Conacher said. “If there had been only vague minutes, it would have been much more difficult to argue the case that the board misinterpreted the law.”

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Following a court ruling overturning four Rossland City Council decisions, one of Canada’s leading advocates of democratic transparency is calling for changes to the way local governments record meetings.

Judge Lyster wrote that councilors are entitled to their personal opinion on planning permission applications, but they are not entitled to adopt “an inferior interpretation… of the OCP” in order to to impose their personal opinion on the applicant.

Conacher said councilors should ensure they make their decisions in a fair, democratic and transparent manner.

“If you are going to serve the public, you must serve them well and fairly, or you will be held accountable,” he said.

The City of Rossland’s YouTube page shows that the last council meeting uploaded to the site is dated October 18, 2021.

Conacher says the province should consider adopting best practices or improved rules for how municipalities create and maintain records of their meetings.

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Chris Walker talks to Stephen Quinn about the bizarre circumstances at Rossland.


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