Trustee transparency tiff

The Pembina Trails School Division board is brushing off a long-time member’s concerns an updated bylaw — which explicitly states note-taking at certain meetings is not required — is “absolutely eliminating transparency and accountability.”

In recent weeks, trustee Gerry Melnyk has repeatedly raised questions about an adjustment to the division’s so-called procedural bylaw No. 1.

“When you’re not keeping minutes, you have a licence to do anything you want. You don’t have to be accountable to the public that put you there,” said Melnyk, the most experienced trustee on the board overseeing the education of 15,000 pupils across south Winnipeg.

The bylaw in question establishes protocols around school board governance, including rules for public presentations at meetings and the recording of minutes.

The original edition states a secretary-treasurer “shall keep, or cause to be kept, minutes of all meetings of the board.”

The updated version adds a line after the above sentence: “For greater certainty, minutes shall not be kept at trustee-only meetings.”

Trustee-only meetings are typically held in-camera without an administrator present. Resolutions at such events must be passed at a public meeting in order to have force and effect, per the bylaw.

During a board meeting Sept. 22, the latter copy was passed unanimously, with one abstention by Melnyk. He vocalized his perspective on the matter during a heated discussion.

“Trustee Melnyk’s interpretation is misguided and the amendments have no impact on transparency,” board chairwoman Dianne Zuk said in an emailed statement Monday.

Zuk noted the only binding and valid decisions that can be made by a board must occur through a regular or special meeting in the public domain. This amendment does not reflect a change in practice and simply “provides clarity about what a board meeting is and is not.”

Melnyk, who is not seeking re-election in the upcoming Oct. 26 municipal vote, said he was frustrated to learn private meeting minutes were not being recorded in the wake of a contentious issue in the division involving a board seat being declared vacant in early 2022.

There were several trustee-only meetings regarding the issue and when Melnyk asked some emails of his be included in minutes for record sake, he learned there was no record being kept.

The trustee said he vividly recalls at least one trustee-only meeting situation when he was on the board in one of Pembina Trails’ legacy divisions, Assiniboine South School Division. At the time, he said handwritten minutes of the meeting were taken, approved by all members and kept confidential.

Following an outburst at the end of the 2021-22 academic calendar, Melnyk was censured and temporarily suspended from his duties for 90 days. When the motion to amend the bylaw was first brought forward, he could not access or participate in board deliberations.

As far as he is concerned, the changes in the bylaw are harmful to both trustees and members of the public.

The recording of private meeting minutes is helpful: for the internal tracking of a division’s history; to equip trustees with written information if a legal issue arises; and so citizens can find out additional information about decision making events via freedom of information request.

“I cannot even fathom why they would’ve changed the bylaw the way they did… You have your minutes, so you can show that you were following proper process and protecting the interest of the school division. For me, that’s always been important,” he said.

The Public Schools Act states a secretary-treasurer must record all resolutions, decisions and other proceedings of a school board in a minute book and when a resident requests such information, make it — except any record of in camera meetings — available.

Alan Campbell, president of the Manitoba School Boards Association, said board practices vary but there is no legal requirement to keep minutes of in-camera meetings.

“Whether it’s a personnel matter or an individual trustee matter, the confidentiality piece around that and the sensitivity around those discussions (is important),” Campbell said, adding there needs to be a mechanism in place so that a board can have a frank conversation without a record so there is no risk of a leak.

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press