As a rule, I try to avoid political speculation, but when Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin abruptly closed last Thursday’s council meeting to the public in the middle of a debate, curiosity won out over prudence.
The meeting was closed in response to Councillor Ben Isitt’s motion to create an independent oversight body for the Johnson Street Bridge project, tasked with ensuring that the project’s design and budget are sound. Upon returning, Isitt — who has been pushing for changes to the JSB project for months — promptly withdrew his motion, citing new information received behind closed doors.
The Community Charter allows municipal councils to close their meetings to the public to protect the privacy of individuals or the financial interests of the city, but also says council must give a specific reason for closing its doors. Asked by members of council why the public had to be excluded from the meeting, Fortin cited a personnel issue despite council’s discussion centring on the JSB project charter.
The mayor only added to the confusion when he later justified his actions to the Times Colonist, where he was quoted as saying “The Johnson Street project is the biggest project we have and there’s a high level of risk. It’s appropriate always for us to understand that some of that risk is political interference.”
While personal privacy and labour relations are listed in the charter as valid reasons to close a meeting, admonishing a political opponent — alluded to in Fortin’s explanation after the fact — is not.
This isn’t the first time red flags have been raised about Victoria City Council’s apparent disdain for the public eye. Shortly after being elected, councillors Lisa Helps and Ben Isitt began to push for tighter rules around when and how council can exclude the public.
Prior to the election, Councillor Geoff Young voiced doubts about the neccessity of closing several meetings, again related to the Johnson Street Bridge.
While it’s unreasonable to assume that council is hiding from the public every time it speaks behind closed doors, last week’s events and the pattern of behaviour leading up to them could easily lead someone to speculate about the willingness among The capital’s political class to bend the law in order to stifle debate over sensitive issues. M