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UPDATED Council confirms: Ombudsman will be Collingwood closed-meeting investigator

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In Collingwood
Jan 23rd, 2020
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Paul Dubé

Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé: his office provides service at no cost to municipality. 

Collingwood will now opt-out of the services currently provided by Local Authority Services (LAS) through a joint partnership with the County of Simcoe

By: Jessica Owen Collingwood Today

In the event of a closed-meeting investigation, the Town of Collingwood will now be using the Ontario Ombudsman as their investigator of choice.

During Monday’s (Jan 20) council meeting, members ratified the committee decision not to extend the contract currently provided by Local Authority Services (LAS) through a joint partnership with the County of Simcoe, instead opting to switch toward utilizing the Ontario Ombudsman’s service in the event of a closed-meeting investigation.

Since the implementation of a closed-meeting investigator in 2008 in Collingwood, the staff report says staff is aware of two formal inquiries made, none of which resulted in a formal investigation.

In 2007, the Municipal Act was amended to include an investigative complaint mechanism that allows any person to ask that an investigation be conducted as to whether a meeting has been improperly closed to the public and/or whether it was contrary to the municipality’s procedural bylaw.

The practice of audio recording in-camera meetings in the event they are needed for an investigation of a closed meeting was approved by Collingwood council nearly a year ago.

According to the Ombudsman’s annual report, there are currently 225 municipalities in Ontario using the services of the Ontario Ombudsman as its closed-meeting investigator.

During a County of Simcoe council discussion Jan. 14, Wasaga Beach Mayor Nina Bifolchi said her council was also in discussions to use the Ombudsman as their investigator moving forward. The Township of Oro-Medonte has also opted out of the agreement and will be going with Principles Integrity as their investigator.

The current LAS contract expires Jan. 31.

Committee against renewing Simcoe County-negotiated investigator contract

By: Jessica Owen CollingwoodToday January 7 2020

Time is almost up on the current contract for the town’s closed-meeting investigator, and looking forward, council may decide to go another way.

During Monday’s corporate and community services standing committee meeting, members considered not extending the contract currently provided by Local Authority Services (LAS) through a joint partnership with the County of Simcoe, instead opting to switch toward utilizing the Ontario Ombudsman’s service in the event of a closed-meeting investigation.

Since the implementation of a closed-meeting investigator in 2008, the staff report says staff is aware of two formal inquiries made, none of which resulted in a formal investigation.

During discussions on the pros and cons, Coun. Steve Berman brought up the two instances the town had used the service over the past 12 years turning up no wrongdoing.

“I think everybody remembers the two biggest issues of the 2018 election. They were both red herrings,” said Coun. Steve Berman.

The two issues to which Berman was referring were that council was blocking the hospital redevelopment, and that council was making decisions in secret meetings.

“It was very upsetting to me that two of the incumbents who are on this committee had to defend themselves from those completely fabricated issues and that various candidates running for all three positions used those as campaign strategies,” said Berman, adding he was also upset staff were dragged into the accusations.

Berman also noted the practice of audio recording in-camera meetings in the event they are needed for an investigation of a closed meeting was approved by council nearly a year ago.

In 2007, the Municipal Act was amended to include an investigative complaint mechanism that allows any person to ask that an investigation be conducted as to whether a meeting has been improperly closed to the public or whether it was contrary to the municipality’s procedural bylaw.

The investigation would be conducted by an investigator who may be appointed by a municipality, or if a municipality has not appointed an investigator, the Ontario Ombudsman would act as the investigator.

According to the Ombudsman’s Annual Report, there are currently 225 municipalities in Ontario that use the services of the Ontario Ombudsman as its closed-meeting investigator.

The current LAS contract expires Jan. 31.

Based on the few closed meeting investigations that have taken place since 2008 and the overall decline in closed meeting investigations reported in the Ombudsman’s Annual Report, town staff recommended utilizing the Ontario Ombudsman as its closed meeting investigator as there are no costs associated with the service, and the level of transparency, independence and confidentiality is maintained.

Under the previous system through the LAS, the town paid an annual administrative fee of $200 plus all applicable taxes whether or not the service was used. For each investigation, the town paid investigation fees ranging between $325 and $725 per hour (excluding expenses) and average expenses of approximately $250 per investigation and mileage rate at $0.58/KM.

Mayor Brian Saunderson expressed concern about the speed of investigations through the Ontario Ombudsman’s office in light of them also taking on integrity commissioner services causing a backlog of cases.

Clerk Becky Dahl said a dedicated Open Meetings Team has been set up to strictly handle closed meeting complaints through the office, and therefore shouldn’t cause a backlog.

The committee voted unanimously to recommend the town utilize the Ontario Ombudsman as its Closed Meeting Investigator once the current contract expires. The decision will need to be ratified at the next meeting of council on Jan. 20.

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