Council Agendas and Meeting Minutes
To be accountable to the public, meetings of council and council committees are public by virtue of section 119 and 120 of The Municipalities Act. Further, subsection 117(1)(d) of The Municipalities Act entitles any person to inspect and obtain copies of council meeting minutes after they have approved by council.
To support this accountability, municipalities can post the agendas of council and council committee meetings to their website. The benefits of municipalities making information available online are plain to see. First, it increases municipalities’ accountability to the citizenry. Second, it increases citizens’ active participation in civic life.
While making information available online, such as council agendas and meeting minutes, has its benefits, municipalities should take care to minimize or avoid the publication of personal information of citizens on their websites.
What are the risks of publishing personal information on a website?
Public participation in civic matters is important to a democratic society. If individuals know their personal information, including their name and concerns, will be published on a website, then they may be deterred from raising matters to council.
Search engines index websites and make information published on websites easily searchable.
Furthermore, technology is enabling organizations to gather and analyze personal information from various sites to create profiles on individuals. Such profiling can have undesirable results such as identity fraud or theft, embarrassment, and physical or emotional harm.
Publishing information on the World Wide Web has a much broader audience than information published in other formats such as hard copy newsletters, magazines, and books. Further, information published online can easily be copied and disseminated. Information, especially if it is inaccurate or unflattering, can haunt or damage an individual’s reputation.
Can municipalities withhold personal information that is in meeting documents?
The short answer is yes.
The long answer is that while subsection 120(1) of The Municipalities Act requires that council and council committees conduct their meetings in public, subsection 120(2) of The Municipalities Act provides that meetings may be closed to the public if the matters being discussed are within the exemptions in PART III of The Local Authority Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (LA FOIP).
Part III of LA FOIP includes subsection 15(1). Subsection 15(1) of LA FOIP provides that a head may refuse to give access to a record that discloses agendas or the substance of deliberations of meetings where matters discussed at the meetings could be refused pursuant to Part III or Part IV of LA FOIP.
Part IV of LA FOIP includes subsection 28(1). Subsection 28(1) of LA FOIP provides that a local authority is not to disclose personal information in its possession or control without the individual’s consent except if the disclosure is authorized by LA FOIP.
Since Part IV of LA FOIP enables a local authority to refuse access to personal information, then council and council committees may close its meetings to the public if the matters being discussed include personal information.
What does this mean for municipalities posting agendas and meeting minutes to its website? Information in documents that falls within the exemption subsection 15(1) of LA FOIP and subsection 28(1) of LA FOIP, then, can be withheld (or redacted) prior to the document being posted online.
What privacy considerations should a municipality undertake when publishing council agendas and meeting minutes?
Before, or at the time of, collection of personal information, LA FOIP requires that municipalities inform individuals of the purpose for which personal information is collected. Therefore, municipalities should notify citizens about how personal information submitted to it could become a part of public council or committee agendas or meetings minutes, and could also be published to the RM’s website. The notice should include the contact information of someone who works for the municipality to answer questions or respond to concerns about the collection of personal information.
Municipalities should consider putting a notice on its website, in brochures, on posters, and on any other medium where citizens can easily see the notice.
If documents such as agendas contain personal information, consider providing council members with a redacted version of the document for the council meeting.
Further, if council meeting minutes contain personal information, then municipalities should consider redacting the personal information prior to publishing the minutes on their website.
When recording the minutes of a council meeting, the municipality should record the least amount of personal information. Better yet, it can attempt to de-identify the information by using terms such as “a Rate payer,” “a Tax payer”, or an initial to represent the person who is involved in a matter being discussed by council, or a council committee.
Review of Practices
Municipalities change and so does technology. Reviewing and revising practices to account for such change can be a good way to stay ahead of the curve. Asking citizens for feedback on the municipalities’ privacy practices may also help municipalities adjust their privacy policies accordingly!