Question: Why do certain ATA meetings go into closed session? What do we have to hide, and what sense does it make to have a closed meeting with potentially hundreds of members present?
Answer: During the recent process to ratify the mediator’s recommendation concerning a central table agreement and throughout the course of local bargaining, members of the Alberta Teachers’ Association participated in general information and bargaining unit meetings that were declared to be closed. Similarly, at the Annual Representative Assembly, the budget debate and potentially other discussions will take place in a closed session.
The reason meetings may be closed is to provide a safe environment for members to voice their views. It is important, particularly in matters related to bargaining, that meeting participants not be intimidated by the possibility that their employers might become aware of comments that may be critical or contrary to the employers’ interests or views of the world.
It is equally important that members feel free to engage in open dialogue with their colleagues at these meetings, even if this involves divergent and perhaps critical views. In a closed meeting venue, members can be frank with each other and with the staff and leadership of the Association without being concerned that their comments might be used by outside interests to advance an agenda hostile to teachers or the Association.
Teachers choosing to remain in a closed meeting must respect the privilege that this extends to other participants. It is not acceptable to record or communicate the proceedings. Nor is it acceptable to attribute to individuals comments they may have made in a closed meeting. Actual decisions, particularly votes on material motions, take place in, or are reported out to, open session and may then be communicated freely.
Members who violate the integrity of a closed meeting place themselves and others at risk. A recently concluded Labour Relations Board (LRB) hearing dealt with, among other matters, a member’s decision to text out to her superintendent commentary and proceedings of a closed bargaining unit general meeting. In the process, the member compromised her superintendent, who failed to shut down the improper exchange, and slandered others present. As a result of the superintendent’s participation in this communication, the school board was found to have engaged in unfair labour practice in contravention of the Labour Relations Code.
In a closed meeting venue, members can be frank with each other and with the staff and leadership of the Association without being concerned that their comments might be used by outside interests to advance an agenda hostile to teachers or the Association.
While the member involved clearly engaged in disreputable conduct, the Association is precluded from pursuing a complaint under the Code of Professional Conduct in matters relating to labour relations. Although the member escaped having to undergo a professional conduct investigation and potentially a hearing before a Professional Conduct Committee, she was still formally censured by Provincial Executive Council.
The vast majority of Association business is conducted in open meetings; however, in some instances, formally closing meetings is necessary to ensure that members can participate meaningfully in our governance processes. In this context, respecting the confidentiality of a closed meeting is respecting democracy. ❚
Questions for consideration in this column are welcome. Please address them to Dennis Theobald at Barnett House (firstname.lastname@example.org).