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