Private sessions of public meetings should be used sparingly by governing bodies
On campus, both the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO)’s Board of Administration (BOA) and the University of Ottawa’s Board of Governors (BOG) hold meetings that are open to the public—mostly.
These bodies can hold a vote to go “in camera”, which, somewhat ironically, means that the meeting becomes closed to the public. During that time, no recordings (cameras included) are allowed and the minutes aren’t made available to the public.
To avoid undermining the value of holding public meetings, these bodies need to make sure they use in-camera sessions sparingly, and that they clearly justify its use to attendees.
It’s important to note that there’s nothing inherently wrong with the practice of in-camera meetings. It’s used to discuss sensitive topics, like hiring, firing or disciplining members. There are, however problems with how it’s used, and how it’s explained—or not—to the public.
There’s a notable lack of regulations imposed on in-camera meetings, including how long a session can go, as evidenced by a recent three-hour session at a BOA meeting.
This isn’t to suggest there’s no place for confidentiality, but it’s important to recognize that there are other opportunities for these bodies to go in-depth on these issues.
These organizations have opportunities to discuss these matters other than their public meetings, such as their executive meetings or committee meetings.
The potential obfuscation of information is only one issue with the use of in-camera sessions—and, given the situation, one which would be hard to prove. It also has a more noticeable effect.
Simply put, most people have no clue what an in camera session is. Most times a BOA or BOG meeting goes in camera, looks of confusion are exchanged between members of the audience before they awkwardly shuffle out of the room, some out of the building entirely.
Even if nothing secretive is going on, it can certainly look that way.
In-camera meetings don’t always come at the end of meetings, and the length of the meetings is generally unspecified. So, if the in-camera session drags on for a long time with no specified end time, members of the public who showed up to the meeting will have significant incentive to leave, and miss the rest of the public meeting that they came to see in the first place.
So it’s a little harder for students to go to a couple of stuffy board meetings, is that really such a big deal? When those meetings are rare monthly windows into the operations of the university and SFUO, who take in millions of dollars of students’ money every year, it’s important they be made as accessible as possible.
That means using fewer in-camera sessions—only when absolutely necessary—as well as using them at the end of meetings, so no one is discouraged from coming back to a meeting. Finally, it means explaining why you’re asking people to leave the meeting.
As suggested by the very low turnout at BOA and BOG meetings—to say nothing of SFUO elections and General Assemblies—it’s hard to get students invested in their university, and administrative bodies shouldn’t be making that harder.