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 City of Rossland, BC.

On January 16, the Supreme Court of BC ruled that the community of West Kootenay – home to more than 4,000 people near the Canada-US border – must grant resident applications for development permits to allow timber to be removed from his four properties.

The court ruling states that the city council “acted in bad faith” when it rejected the motions.

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

The ruling said the city rejected developer Warren Hamm’s applications, even though the City Council believed the applications complied with Rossland’s local statutes and that it would be illegal to reject them based on “misinterpretation” of the Official Community Plan (OCP) which it rejects.

“Prohibited Purpose”

The Judge added that after the rejections, the council passed a new charter on the management of trees which makes it impossible to apply for similar development permits in the future.

“They imposed obligations on the petitioners [Hamm’s companies] they were not found in the official community plan to prevent deforestation, which they found distasteful,” Lyster wrote. “This amounts to an improper purpose.”

Hamm’s lawyer, Jesse Gelber, based in Trail, BC, said he was able to transcribe the council meetings in question thanks to the city’s practice of holding virtual council meetings and publishing the recordings of the -her video for public access during the peak of YouTube uploads of COVID-19. 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 through the minds of the decision makers,” Gelber said.

“Had this not been recorded on YouTube, it would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to achieve the result we achieved.”

The Rossland, BC virtual council meeting 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 statements from the mayor and by the members of the council. (City of Rossland/YouTube)

No legal obligation to provide verbatim records

BC’s Local Government Act requires municipalities and regional districts to prepare legible and accurate written minutes and make them available to the public, but does not specify how detailed those minutes should be, and does not do local government meetings need to be video recorded and video uploaded. for video sharing sites.

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

“If you don’t have those kinds of records, it’s pretty easy to cover up malicious decisions,” Conacher said. “If it was just vague minutes, it would have been much more difficult to make the case that the council misinterpreted the law.”

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

Justice Lyster wrote that councilors are entitled to have their own views on planning permission applications, but are not entitled to adopt “an inferior interpretation… of the OCP” in order to enforce personal views their on the applicant.

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

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

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

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

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Chris Walker talks to Stephen Quinn about the strange circumstances in Rossland.


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