BY VOICE STAFF
Following the unprecedented events in Regional headquarters last Thursday evening, in which journalists’ equipment was seized by Regional staff, and police called in at the urging of Mayor Dave Augustyn, the Voice reached out to request comment from all Regional councillors. The responses we received appear below.
A troubling incident occurred Thursday during a closed session of Niagara Regional council. After concerns were raised, it was found that a device was being used to record the closed session portion of the meeting, and at that time Regional staff secured all of the media devices that were left in closed session.
I wish to apologize wholeheartedly and unreservedly to reporter Bill Sawchuk on behalf of Niagara Region, its employees, and its councillors. What happened was wrong and I am sorry for the events that occurred.
Freedom of the press plays an integral role in Canadian democracy. Niagara Region understands this. I have asked staff to develop a plan to review all policies and protocols to prevent such an incident in the future.
The police were called to investigate the matter of the concealed taping machine. The concealed taping of a conversation may have been a crime or an offence and should have been investigated by the police. Unfortunately, despite calling in the police, staff did not allow that investigation. It was not appropriate for staff to confiscate personal materials (of Mr. Haskell) or media material (of Mr. Sawchuk).
Regional Council properly went into a closed session on Thursday night to discuss a matter related to an identifiable individual. My seat is located the furthest distance away from the media table so my comments are directed more to what I heard than what I saw.
As usual, all members of the gallery and media are requested to exit the Council chamber during a closed session.
Early into the session Councillor Annunziata indicated that he observed a light on a device at the media table under a peaked cap. From my vantage point that location had formerly been occupied by [blogger] Preston Haskell. The CAO gave directions that the device be taken by staff and secured and that the owner not be readmitted to the Council Chamber.
One councillor indicated that someone should photograph the device, and Councillor Augustyn suggested that the police be called with regard to the matter.
The meeting continued for several minutes when the CAO observed additional equipment at the media table. The position of those items corresponded to the seating location of Standard reporter, Bill Sawchuck.
The CAO asked that that equipment also be secured by removal from the Council chamber. I do not recall that instructions were given to staff other than the removal of the equipment from the Council Chamber.
It is my opinion that the directions given to act on the first device were inadvertently applied to the second device. This was a serious error and rightly a cause for concern.
To prevent any such errors in the future, it is my recommendation that when required to vacate the Council chambers, all people be asked to take all personal belongings with them.
The handling of this situation by Regional staff is completely unacceptable. The press are our partners in serving our constituents and deserve to be treated fairly, with respect and with dignity and this did not happen.
Personally I have the utmost respect for Bill Sawchuk, and I know he is an ethical and competent professional. He should get an unqualified apology, but it needs to be more than that, as real change is required and I’m sure we will be working on that. I know I will.
In my estimation, the actions were completely appropriate. After things were clarified, everything that should have been returned, was. I am very disappointed [resident] Haley Bateman had to be extremely inconvenienced due to certain individuals personal actions.
I was not at the meeting but on my way home from Asia having attended a very productive business delegation lead by the premier that included five agricultural businesses and the Town of Lincoln.
Having only read about the events that apparently took place, I am limited to commenting in principle and largely from my own play- book.
Let me say that the media play an extremely important role as conduits to our residents, who rely on that third party perspective. It is not enough at this point to say this was an unfortunate incident. Policy and procedure may provide guidance so this does not happen again in the future, but first we have to clearly establish the primacy of freedom of speech.
Otherwise the process is useless and we will never get beyond the complete inadequacy of how the circumstances were handled.
I would also add that how we demonstrate our attitude and regard for freedom of speech every day and in every interaction, of which some are quite simple, must also be transparent, or the spirit supporting the policy and procedure will have no substance, no truth to it.
Those with the power who are privileged to serve will always carry the responsibility to respond to the media.
I am very glad with the sincere apologies that have been extended to Bill Sawchuk and look forward to seeing him again at the table along with bloggers and others who bring their perspectives to the public forum.
In closing, the most important principle for me in all these things is that we never attack the individual but go hard on the issue, and I hope this is where all of our chatter over the past few days is going.
If a deliberate attempt was being made to surreptitiously record the closed session that would have contravened the Criminal Code of Canada.
Given the seriousness of that potential act, I believe that staff acted appropriately in trying to ensure that no such recording was made.
Unfortunately, there was no specific policy to follow because such a blatant or flagrant attempt to circumvent the confidentiality of closed session had not been contemplated by Council or staff.
However, it underscores the need for greater clarity in our rules and procedures.
A device was concealed under a hat. It was on the recording mode and was recording. That device was six inches away from another device, an open and turned on laptop. So we have a concealed recording device at the media table, recording a closed session meeting. (That point seems to get lost in the Standard’s coverage). Councillor Augustyn made the suggestion that staff call police. I was focused on the in-camera session and can’t comment on what transpired in the hall.
Freedom of the press is a bulwark of our democracy. Not allowing a free press to cover our meetings, and all media coverage for that matter, is not acceptable.
However, we had a situation last Thursday evening, at our Council meeting, where we found it necessary to go in camera to discuss information about an identifiable individual, and to hear legal advice about this individual. This discussion was confidential and fully supported by the Municipal Act as being confidential in nature.
At the outset of the in camera portion, after everyone who was not authorized had left the chamber, one of our Council members who was passing by the media desk, noticed that reporters had left their electronic devices, and that some of these devices were on.
Indeed, the clerk who went to the desk immediately to investigate, saw that there was a recording device on, and also that the other devices were on and could have been recording.
The decision was made by our CAO to confiscate all of the equipment temporarily so that we could continue with the meeting.
I don’t think that anybody knew whose equipment was whose, etc. There had been three reporters at that desk before the doors were closed.
I do know that the recording device which was on has been turned over to the NRP. It is really unfortunate that all the devices had to be seized, but no one really knew whose was which, and whose was actually recording.
I also know that the devices which were not recording were returned to their owners as soon as possible.
Obviously, we need better protocols about the leaving of electronic devices when we are dealing with in camera situations.
Freedom of the press, and of all media, is critical to our democracy, albeit with certain limitations.
While Council was justifiably concerned about the discovery of a recording device located underneath a hat at the media table that was at the time of discovery found to be recording the in-camera discussion about an identifiable person, Council did not direct staff to locate and remove Mr. Sawchuk. The recording device was not the property of Mr. Sawchuk.
As a member of Regional Council, I am disappointed by how Mr. Sawchuk was treated. In the confusion of the other recording device that was found to be recording the in-camera Council discussion, it was understood that staff were going to request that Mr. Sawchuk show that his computer was not recording any of the in-camera discussion. How it turned into staff refusing to give back Mr. Sawchuk’s computer and why he was asked to the leave the building is beyond comprehension.
I believe strongly that freedom of the press is a fundamental principle of democracy. While government has the ability to go in-camera for very specifics reasons as regulated by law, I don’t believe government should have the right to seize property of the media or remove reporters from government offices.
I believe Regional staff greatly mishandled this situation, and as a Regional Councillor I will request actions to be taken to ensure this never happens again. This is a stain on our image as a Region. Simple apologies are not enough—we need to ensure that the CAO of the Region of Niagara and support staff are held to account for this, and policies and procedures are adopted to prevent such egregious mistakes from ever being made again.