Rainbow District School Board defeats motion to outlaw teleconferences for in camera meetings

SUDBURY—A motion before the Rainbow District School Board (RDSB) board of trustees that would have meant that trustees had to attend in camera meetings in person was defeated at the board’s Tuesday, September 13 strategic planning committee meeting held in Sudbury.

The motions “10.5: Board members who participate in an in camera meeting of a committee  of the Board, including a Committee of the Whole Board, shall be physically present;” and  “14.8: Members must be physically present to attend in camera meetings;” were both defeated after being opposed by both the Manitoulin trustee Larry Killens and First Nations trustee Grace Fox.

While the business cases for the motions were presented in camera, Mr. Killens read his business case into the record in the open meeting. Mr. Killens supplied his remarks to The Expositor.

“I hasten to point out the Education Act currently provides for boards in Ontario providing conference calls. You will note that provision is there to allow boards to make provisions for conference calls and that provision was grabbed up to support/alleviate one of the problems posed by amalgamations. Difficulty of reaching meetings so far away. Live streaming of meetings is commonplace, even in our board and the entire OPSBA world.”

Although the object of the motions was not directly identified, Mr. Killens said that he was approached by members of the audience suggesting it was clearly aimed at him.

“There was a poll vote taken at my request and both motions were defeated by a five to four vote,” said Mr. Killens. “Results of poll vote by name are available through board secretary, Mrs. H. Thirkill.”

Mr. Killens made a spirited defence of trustees’ ability to attend meetings by teleconference, particularly those coming from remote regions of the board, Manitoulin chief among them. He noted that First Nation trustee Ms. Fox also spoke in opposition to the motion, noting that she should not be forced to travel into a meeting if she was suffering from a cold.

Although the motions were defeated, Mr. Killens said that he was not celebrating it as a victory. “It makes me sad that it has to go this far,” he said. “This should not be happening.”

Mr. Killens, who had already been barred from certain in camera meetings of the board for nearly a year, said that he felt the motions were directed largely towards him. Mr. Killens spends part of the winter in Florida each year and the motion to require in person attendance at meetings would have impacted him significantly.

“Sure, I go to Florida for three months during the winter, but I have never missed a meeting,” said Mr. Killens, referencing his status as a snowbird. He added that his telephone and email keep him in touch with his constituents throughout the winter months and insists that his trip south in no way hinders his effectiveness as a trustee.

But the trustee did not tackle the issue on a personal or out of country position, focussing instead on the general impact such a policy change would have on trustees from regions outside the City of Sudbury. The ability to teleconference into RDSB meetings, he asserts, was clearly put in place to alleviate some of the negative impacts of the amalgamation of the Manitoulin School Board into the RDSB.

“This may have been aimed at me, I can’t say, but it isn’t about me,” he said. “This is about the people who elect a trustee to represent them being able to have representation from the person they elected at the board meetings, even if the weather doesn’t cooperate.”

As to the allegations against him that led to his exclusion from in camera meetings, Mr. Killens shared a letter from the Ontario Ombudsman.

That letter read, in part, “You complained that your removal from certain in camera discussions should have been dealt with under the code of conduct enforcement provisions of the Education Act and the School Board policy.” That letter noted that the Ombudsman’s investigation had determined that “The agenda for the April 14, 2015 special in camera meeting did not indicate that a notice of a motion respecting you or your conduct would be considered.”

The letter went on to say that “the chair told our office that the April 14, 2015 motion was prompted by your response to a confidential email sent to all trustees by the Director of Education a few days before the meeting. The chair stated that this response raised a red flag for her given past incidents in which you were involved. The chair therefore brought her concerns to the attention of board members at the April 14, 2015 meeting. She stated that, in bringing the motion, she was trying to protect the school board.

“With respect to the timing of the motion, the chair told our Office that the motion was brought on April 14, 2015, because there would not have been time to address it under the code of conduct, as time was of the essence. She stated that no board members at the meeting suggested that the motion be deferred or reconsidered.”

From the Ombudsman’s Office letter, it is clear that the board’s own procedures were not followed.

Further, when efforts were made to rectify matters, errors continued to dog the issue.

“In an effort to restore procedural fairness in the circumstances, you were given the opportunity to speak in camera to the April 14, 2015 motion during the July 5, 2016 meeting of the board of trustees,” noted the letter. “The motion was then voted on in open session by the board of trustees. The chair acknowledged to our office that the premature adjournment of the July 5, 2016 regular meeting, which resulted in no members of the public being present for the vote, was an error.”

In the final analysis, the Ombudsman’s response was somewhat less than inspiring: “Our office has encouraged the school board to be vigilant in adhering to its obligations under the Act and its own policies and procedures.”

Mr. Killens has a number of complaints and challenges to the board’s actions remaining, including harassment, which is involving a dispute as to whether trustees are in point of fact “employees” of the board. Mr. Killens maintains that he should be considered as such and therefore protected from harassment the same as any other employee, the board, he maintains, does not accept that definition. That challenge has now drawn in the Canadian Revenue Agency, noted Mr. Killens.