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The Ombudsman question is the key transparency question

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In Adjala-Tosorontio
Sep 29th, 2014
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Who’s keeping your politicians honest? Well, that’s your job, to keep an eye on what they’re up to. Democracy isn’t just about casting a vote at election time, it’s about remaining involved in the government of your community.

But what if your politicians duck behind closed doors so you have no idea what they’re up to? They’re allowed to do so for legal, personnel or real estate matters, but sometimes other issues get improperly dealt with “in camera.” One example: Springwater in 2012, when the majority of councillors, including mayor Linda Collins and deputy-mayor Dan McLean, decided to gang up on councillors Jack Hanna and Sandy McConkey, trying to control what they wrote in the local newspaper. There was no way that fell under any definition of confidentiality and the public should have been able to hear that discussion.

After finding out about this closed-doors meeting, I filed a complaint with John Maddox of JGM Consulting, who is retained by Springwater as its closed-meetings investigator and he found that council had acted improperly.

However, there is a standard for closed-meetings investigations that is set by the Ombudsman, and I found the Maddox process fell short of serving the publc well. This is what I wrote at the time, contrasting the Springwater investigation with one that had recently taken place in Midland:

“Midland is one of three Simcoe County municipalities to have appointed the Ombudsman as their closed meeting investigator. Springwater is one of 14 (including Simcoe County) to have chosen Maddox, even though Maddox is paid through the local tax dollar, whereas the Ombudsman’s services are funded by the province.


“The Ombudsman’s decisions are posted on its official website, and made public through a news release – all part of a process that reflects the Ombudsman’s role in acting for the public in investigating council activities behind closed doors.


“Maddox’s decision goes to council and appears on the municipal website under correspondence in the July 15 council agenda (Item 10.1). The sense that Maddox acts for council rather than the public is reinforced by the many caveats in the report and the covering letter. Maddox’s invoice – referred to in the covering letter – is not posted.”

I am sorry to report that there are now only two Simcoe County municipalities that retain the Ombudsman – Midland and Penetanguishene. In October, 2013, Tiny Township chose to drop the Ombudsman’s service and go for the Maddox option.  A report in the Tiny Cottager noted that Maddox doesn’t provide bilingual service while the Ombudsman does – and the motion to switch was put forward by councillor Andre Claire, who had insisted that the most recent Ombudsman’s investigation be conducted in French. A touch of irony there.

I’ve had a discussion with a couple of Tiny councillors – in particular, recently, with deputy mayor George Lawrence. He explained that he considered that the Ombudsman’s investigation took too long and that it was unfair to have the matter hanging over the head of council for seven months. My response is, sorry for the inconvenience, but it should go with the territory. If councillors discuss the public’s business out of the public’s view, that is a serious matter and they should be prepared to justify their actions to an independent third party, rather than a consultant they retain (paying the piper and calling the tune).

It should be noted that the Ombudsman’s service is one the province pays for. But if your council chooses a consultant to do the job (and many do), the cost is downloaded to the local taxpayer. That’s your choice. If you want to pay the full cost of a less thorough investigation, you’ll be happy with the choice made on your behalf by Simcoe County and most local councils.

After the last election, AWARE Simcoe members hoped that Simcoe County municipalities would switch to the Ombudsman, in fulfillment of the transparency promise that was on all candidates’ lips in 2010. But there was a concerted pushback from the county’s clerks and treasurers association.

This was what I reported at the time:

“County clerk Brenda Clarke advised council that the feeling among clerks across Simcoe County was that the Ombudsman “may have reported more than was really necessary.”

“Unknown to AWARE Simcoe observers at the meeting, Carey deGorter, Barrie’s deputy clerk and president of the Simcoe County Clerks and Treasurers Association, had written to county councillors on November 18, urging against retaining the Ombudsman.

“The letter accuses the Ombudsman of using “provocative” language and a more wide-ranging interpretation of what meetings are open to investigation. 

“Of greater concern, the association advises that it is preferrable for council to retain control over the process, “to prepare the terms of engagement.”

We lost that one, but across the county and across the province, residents are becoming increasingly irked by councils whose idea of “preparing the terms of engagement” is to keep the public firmly on the other side of a closed door.

Ontario is now looking at legislation to bring all of the “MUSH”  sector under the Ombudsman’s purview. MUSH stands for Municipalities, Universities, School boards and Hospitals. AWARE Simcoe strongly supports this move and feels Conservation Authorities should also fall under the Ombudsman’s scrutiny – CAs don’t have any kind of third-party review available for their in camera meetings.

The Ombudsman question is #4-d on the questionnaire AWARE Simcoe has circulated to candidates. We suggest you check your municipality on this website under the ‘Candidates – Election 2014’ button on the menu, to see how candidates have answered. We do have to apologize, there are a couple of municipalities where very few answers are posted, because of tardiness on our part in getting them out across the county.

Unfortunately, in Tiny Township, some of the candidates have told us they do not plan to fill out the AWARE Simcoe questionnaire. Lawrence – running for mayor – told me that he won’t be doing so because of the Ombudsman question and the position AWARE Simcoe has taken on it. We view this as just one of a few important matters we asked candidates to provide their view on. Clearly, in Tiny, it looms large. The question is, why?

NB – We will be looking at the answers from candidates, plus comments, in all municipalities, and will report in future posts.

Who investigates closed-door meetings in Simcoe County:

LAS (Local Authorities Service, owned by the Association of Municipalities of Ontario) – Barrie

Larry Keogh (a former mayor of New Tecumseth) Adjala-Tosorontio

John Craig – Orillia

John Maddox of JGM Consulting in London, a retired municipal affairs ministry bureaucrat, is the investigator of choice for Simcoe County and most of its lower tier municipalities  – Bradford-West Gwillimbury, Clearview,Collingwood, Essa, Innisfil, New Tecumseth, Oro-Medonte, Ramara, Severn, Simcoe County, Springwater, Wasaga Beach.

Ombudsman – Midland, Penetanguishene

Background

Springwater councillors criticized 

Investigator faults Springwater

AWARE Simcoe suggests another look at closed meetings investigator 

Link to Ombusdman’s site You can find decisions on Midland, Penetanguishene and Tiny linked to their names in the listing of municipalities

 

2 Responses to “The Ombudsman question is the key transparency question”

  1. Ray Millar says:

    I thought Tiny’s decision to replace the Ontario Ombudsman had gone unnoticed. It should be noted that the decision to replace the Ombudsman was not unanimous, I strenuously, but unsuccessfully opposed the motion on a recorded vote (motion 574/13).
    I have had opportunity to use the services of the Ontario Ombudsman on several occasions beginning with an issue involving Site 41 and the Ministry of the Environment and more recently over Tiny’s bylaw regarding wind turbines. In the later example you may recall that Deputy Mayor Lawrence brought a prepared bylaw opposing wind turbines before Council. Council had not discussed the bylaw nor had municipal staff or the municipality’s lawyer participated in the drafting of the bylaw. Deputy Mayor Lawrence admitted that he had assistance in preparing the bylaw but he couldn’t remember who helped him. Remarkably, he couldn’t remember even though he has a municipally provided smart phone, laptop computer and a hard copy agenda /date book to jog his memory! What else can’t Deputy Mayor Lawrence remember?

    It was shortly after the Ombudsman expressed concern over Deputy Mayor Lawrence’s memory lapse that the majority of Council rescinded the Ontario Ombudsman’s appointment as Tiny’s closed meeting investigator. (Ombudsman Report dated August 16th, 2013)

    As mentioned, I have been involved with the Ombudsman’s Office on several matters and never once has the Ombudsman’s Office accepted my argument. The best I have ever been able to do was wrestle them to a draw, for lack of a better term. That said, I hold the Ontario Ombudsman’s Office in the highest regard. The Office is made up of intelligent, concerned, hard working people who have nothing but the best interests of the Ontario public in heart and mind. I thank them very much for their efforts and well reasoned arguments, win , lose or draw. If asked, I support without reservation, the Ontario Ombudsman’s oversight of the MUSH sector.

    Regards
    Ray Millar, Mayor
    Twp of Tiny

  2. Cindy Hastings says:

    I fail to understand the logic behind the decision to replace the Ombudsman as the closed meeting investigator in Tiny Township. The cost is paid for by the province. It is a bilingual service that is particularly important in Tiny given that 11% of our population reported French as their first language and we are one of the few officially bilingual municipalities. I have no doubt that it is long, tedious process for staff and council to pull together the required information for the Ombudsman’s investigation. There is, however, a very simple solution to minimizing this disruption – Don’t hold unnecessary closed door meetings!
    In October, 2012 Tiny council held a closed meeting that discussed a confidential staff report effectively cancelling the Memorandum of Understanding between the Township and the six Parks and Recreation Associations. While it may have been difficult to ascertain at the onset of the meeting what could be discussed openly, council had the opportunity after the fact to share the information that didn’t meet the closed meeting criteria. Mayor Millar reviewed the discussions and determined that there was nothing in the report that couldn’t be released to the public. He put forward a motion to release the confidential report but was defeated.
    Given no other choice, the associations asked the Ombudsman to review the meeting. The report came back and clearly stated that the majority of this particular in-camera meeting was inappropriately held. Unfortunately the report was received by council and subsequently filed away. No further action was taken. That would be my only complaint regarding the Ombudsman. They need to be given more “teeth”. Reports are great but ability to right the wrong would be even better. I guess that’s what elections are for though.

    Regards,
    Cindy Hastings
    Candidate for Councillor, Township of Tiny

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