CSL council questioned on how public, public consult process is

CSL Director of Legal Services Jonathan Shecter addresses a question at the June 14 virtual council meeting.

Côte St. Luc council was questioned last week by council regular Tamar Hertz about the recent public consultation process that led to a 4-2 council vote to stop a new synagogue/community centre from being built on Mackle Road.

During a 15-day public consultation process conducted in writing earlier this year because of COVID, the city received 162 e-mails opposing the project as proposed and none specifically in favour. This prevented a referendum on the matter from taking place. The names of those commenting by e-mail were not made public.

Hertz said the public consultation practice was not transparent.

"On April 12, I was told by the city I would have an answer to my question regarding the transparency of public consultation e-mails," she added. "I still have received no response."

Mayor Mitchell Brownstein responded that the city has been following provincial pandemic rules.

"This is imposed on us," he added. "We like to give as much information as possible with respect to information we receive from consultations, and we have directed our staff to do so. However, we're just elected officials, so it's staff that will really have to answer that question."

CSL Director of Legal Services Jonathan Shecter said Hertz is correct that "in normal times... the public is consulted and, if they raise any concerns, they may do so verbally and in person, and they will identify themselves.

"What's happening during the pandemic is that the National Assembly has issued a decree that we cannot proceed in that fashion. Any municipal council that wants to go forward with a zoning amendment must do so with a 15-day written consultation."

Shecter says those who address the city with questions relating to the public consultation do provide their coordinates, "so that we can actually respond to them if they have any questions.

"The feedback given by the residents is something that can be accessible, or the general comments, but not the personal information, such as the names, addresses, phone numbers and such."

"Why is that?" asked Brownstein.

Shecter responded that the information is "considered personal, and the law considering accessibility of certain information, municipalities by law would not be allowed to give out certain personal information.

"In this particular case, these e-mails are treated as if they were any other e-mails that are written. Because of this, the city is not allowed, in this particular instance, to give out personal information of those who address us. This was validated with an outside attorney — this is a very exceptional situation with the pandemic. The concerns raised by the resident are definitely valid ones."

Brownstein then asked what is the difference in a situation where a questioner is seen and identifies him or herself at an in-person meeting, and a question is submitted in writing but the person's name is not made public.

Shecter responded that "in a public, in-person meeting, a resident would address the microphone and would themselves renounce, on some level, what their anonymity is, versus in this particular case, in certain instances, it was specifically requested of us to not disclose the information. In other cases, it's not assumed either by the resident who's addressing us that their information would or would not be given out. In a public forum, the resident who would address the mike would give their name... but they don't give their addresses or e-mail addresses, or phone numbers.... It's the nature of the meetings. If they sign a petition, they are renouncing [their privacy], in this case they're giving the information privately."

Brownstein said that council is unanimous "in that we want to give all the information we're allowed to, according to the law. But if our legal department says otherwise, that's the way it is.

"We don't want to do anything that's non-transparent... if there's any way we can give more information based on requests that are received, please do so."

Councillor David Tordjman countered that public consultations and the resulting council decisions "requires the information, and the people for and against any particular projects, to be made public.

"If we're going to go forward with other public consultations in the near future, we should make it very clear any comments or e-mails made for or against any project can be made public. Not personal information like e-mails and phone numbers, but as in a public consultation where one would come up to the microphone. That's the normal course of a transparent and open government."

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