Stratford City Council selected as 2021’s ‘most secretive’ municipal body

Stratford City Council has been selected as the 2021 recipient of the Code of Silence Award for Outstanding Achievement in Government Secrecy in the municipal category.

For more than two years, the Stratford City Council circumvented basic transparency measures as it held secret in-camera meetings and failed to properly report discussions and planning undertaken with Xinyi Canada Glass, the Canadian subsidiary of Hong Kong-based Xinyi Glass Holdings, to build a gigantic $400 million glass factory in the community.

According to documents provided to the jury, the city’s long-time mayor, Dan Mathieson, wrote to Steve Clark, Ontario’s Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing in 2018 and 2020 to request the province’s assistance to obtain a Ministerial Zoning Order (MZO). An MZO allows the minister of municipal affairs and housing to approve zoning projects without public consultation or chances for appeal.

In late 2020, a citizens’ group opposed to the project filed a complaint with a third-party investigator about the council’s lack of transparency and public consultation on the construction project. On May 11, 2021, a final report was released that concluded city council contravened the Municipal Act, 2001 and also spotlighted systemic problems with the way the city publishes information about events that take place behind closed doors.

“Measure for measure, this is an egregious violation of transparency best practices,” said Paul Deegan, president and CEO of News Media Canada. “The Code of Silence jury notes the extensive limitations placed on the public to obtain information through Freedom of Information.”

According to the award submission, the city demanded $8,850 for one FOI request. In another, the city declared no records were found. A third request was told that a study commissioned by the city was confidential because it was given to the city solicitor.

“They should take a bow,” said Deegan.

In addition to Stratford City Council, the Code of Silence jury also awarded a dishonourable mention to the city council of Surrey, B.C, with a particular notation for Mayor Doug McCallum, and councillors Doug Elford, Laurie Guerra, Allison Patton, and Mandeep Nagra.

According to materials submitted to the Code of Silence jury, the mayor banned a group of seven senior citizens from physically attending city council meetings or participating remotely. The group was opposed to the city’s transition from the RCMP to a municipal police force.

The city council agreed, in late December, to rescind the bylaw it created to prevent the citizens from participating. It stopped short, however, of apologizing to the individuals or reimbursing them for their legal fees.

The Code of Silence Awards are presented annually by the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University (CFE), News Media Canada, and the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE). The intent of the awards is to call public attention to government or publicly-funded agencies that work hard to hide information to which the public has a right to under access to information legislation.

Last year, the City of North Bay, Ont. was awarded a Code of Silence Award in the municipal category for a laundry list of transparency violations. The Town of Erin, Ont., has also been a past award recipient.