District of Maple Ridge has the right to clean up video, says SFU professor

Maple Ridge resident claims Local Government Act does not give the mayor or council the authority to “retroactively close a meeting.”

As much as Maple Ridge councillors want it to go away, the issue of the edited video awaits their return from summer break.

Council watcher Grover Telford will challenge the district’s authority to “censor” a video of a public meeting.

The issue arose when the municipality’s lawyer advised council that comments by Coun. Corisa Bell at a June 17 committee of the whole may be libelous toward a member of district staff. She was commenting about the budget process.

The video of the meeting was taken off the website, edited, and then returned with the controversial comments taken out. Bell has been allowed to view the video in its entirety.

Council has been publicly challenged for the move, with critics saying they are stifling dissent from Bell.

Telford said he has investigated the matter, and the Local Government Act does not give the mayor or council the authority to “retroactively close a meeting.”

He cites a section of the act which says municipal records must be available for public inspection, and that if a meeting is to be closed, then council must state that before the meeting, and by resolution.

At council’s last meeting on July 23, councillors were united in saying they are open, do not try to discourage “tough questions,” and want to put the matter of the video behind them.

But Telford, a failed council candidate who says he will run on a slate of candidates in the next municipal election, plans to be at the Aug. 27 meeting to raise his questions.

He said the action council has taken “flies in the face of democracy.”

“In the court of public opinion, it is obviously censorship.”

Political scientist Gordon Price, who was on Vancouver city council for 15 years, and is now the director of the district program at Simon Fraser University, believes the municipality is on solid footing.

Acknowledging he does not know the contents of the video, and is not a lawyer, Price said Maple Ridge could be exposing itself to a libel lawsuit if it ignored legal advice.

“If you didn’t take the advice, you’ve got a double problem,” he said.

“The city is covering its ass.”

Price said council videos are not regarded in law as formal Hansard, and do not constitute the legal record of the meeting.

He also noted that even the Hansard from the House of Commons in Ottawa is edited for clarity. “My guess is yes, they’re probably okay on that,” said Price.

“If the city didn’t take action, and were sued for slander, their only defence would be that they were not allowed to change it (the video) – and I’m not aware of that.”

The municipality does not have any legal obligation to post its videos online.

Telford is not the only person who wants answers about the video. Community activist Nicole Read made a freedom of information request asking for a copy of the video.