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Windsor city council violated Municipal Act with meeting to take over BIAs: report

Outside council chambers at Windsor City Hall on March 18, 2024. (Dalson Chen/CBC - image credit)
Outside council chambers at Windsor City Hall on March 18, 2024. (Dalson Chen/CBC - image credit)

An external investigation has found Ontario's Municipal Act was violated several times during Windsor city council's closed-door meeting last year on temporarily taking over all of Windsor's business improvement associations.

The findings by the business law firm Aird & Berlis LLP were disclosed to the community in a report to council on Monday.

Among the investigator's conclusions: There was no stated public resolution to enter a closed session about the matter, nor was there any resolution about the general nature of the discussion.

The vote to take over the BIAs should not have taken place in a closed session, as the matter did not involve City of Windsor personnel or anyone contracted by the city.

Windsor city council meeting on March 18, 2024.
Windsor city council meeting on March 18, 2024.

Windsor city council meeting on March 18, 2024. (Dalson Chen/CBC)

Although the matter was later brought into public session, "it appears obvious that some form of consensus was reached at the closed portion of the meeting," wrote Laura Dean of Aird & Berlis LLP.

Not only did council violate the province's Municipal Act, but the city's own procedural bylaws were broken, the investigation determined.

Dean noted that "no public notice of the meeting or the closed session, in the form of a public agenda, was posted online."

Based in Toronto, Aird & Berlis LLP was retained by the city following a formal complaint about council's process in February 2023.

At that time, in a closed-door striking-committee meeting, council decided to take control of all nine of the city's BIAs for a 60-day period.

The goal was to conduct close examination of how the BIAs handled their elections, memberships, and financial matters.

Some BIA chairs were surprised when they received notice of the temporary takeover.

The Windsor City Hall building on March 18, 2024.
The Windsor City Hall building on March 18, 2024.

The Windsor City Hall building on March 18, 2024. (Dalson Chen/CBC)

At least two Windsor city councillors agreed with the firm's findings.

"Obviously, anything we can do to enhance being more accountable to the people and more open in our process, the better," Ward 1 Coun. Fred Francis told CBC Windsor.

"It's unfortunate that this wasn't flagged during the meeting. That's always a heightened concern of mine, I know other members of council.... Should we be in-camera, or should we be in public session?"

Earlier this month, Francis criticized an in-camera decision by council to move forward on residential development of the Roseland Golf and Curling Club.

Francis admits that meeting was different from the striking committee meeting in February 2023, but he argues: "Anytime anyone is looking at an in-camera agenda, the items disclosed on the agenda should be able to give them some kind of insight as to what council is discussing."

Outside Windsor City Hall on March 18, 2024.
Outside Windsor City Hall on March 18, 2024.

Outside Windsor City Hall on March 18, 2024. (Dalson Chen/CBC)

Ward 9 Coun. Kieran McKenzie, was vocal in February 2023 that he felt council was "overreaching" by taking over the BIAs,

"I think it's really important for us to apply a very high bar whenever we're thinking about whether or not we should be in-camera or not," McKenzie told CBC Windsor on Monday.

"That's up to not just the clerks — that's up to every single individual who is involved in those meetings, whether they be from administration, or council, or the mayor. We all have an obligation to recognize that the business that we're conducting as publicly elected officials needs to be conducted in public."

"And people need to understand why we're making the decisions that we're making, because they affect everybody."

On Monday, council unanimously voted in favour of recommendations by Aird & Berlis LLP regarding better public notice of meetings.

City clerk Steve Vlachodimos told CBC in a statement that administration is already instituting procedural changes in line with the recommendations, "making all the agendas and minutes available to the public on the city's website as part of improving transparency."

Windsor citizen Melinda Munro, whose complaint led to the investigation, told CBC Windsor she's happy with the outcome. "I am looking forward to more transparency from council in the future."