Billings council voices objections to Ont. Ombudsman’s comments

KAGAWONG—Having amended its procedural bylaw for in camera meetings to comply with provincial regulations, the Municipal Act and the Privacy Act (after a complaint had been raised in the way it selected a new councillor last year), Billings Township council is upset at comments made by the Ontario Ombudsman. Council has acquired the services of Local Authority Services (LAS) (instead of the Ombudsman’s office) to investigate any public complaints made pertaining to council procedures.

“I would suggest that we go with LAS; we would get more reasonable, mature, and a less condescending response on errors,” stated Billings Councillor Tom Imrie at a council meeting last week. “If we are did something wrong, we’ll take our lumps and tell us what we did wrong. But we should not be chastised in public. Being mocked for an error we made is wrong.”

“His (Ombudsman) actions have gone too far,” agreed councillor Brian Parker.

Council was upset with quotes and stories in several major Toronto newspapers recently in which Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin talked about complaints he investigated in 2014 of illegal actions taken by Ontario municipal councils.

‘A small town council that flipped a coin to decide who’d be the next councillor (referring to Billings council),” read the Toronto Star, and the Toronto Sun reported the most abused reason for holding a public meeting in private was personal matters about an unidentifiable individual, the report said. Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin was quoted by CTV News that “the most remarkable misuse of the exception occurred when the Township of Billings cited to justify flipping a coin behind closed doors to decide who would fill a vacancy on council,” in a report he filed. Mr. Marin has also said municipal councils in Ontario should face penalties when they don’t follow laws that require most of their meetings be public.

“Sudbury had the Ombudsman on hand to investigate any complaints (or wrongdoings of council), they let him go, but then hired him back,” said Mayor Austin Hunt.

It was pointed out the 144 municipalities in Ontario can choose who they want to investigate complaints, the Ombudsman office or LAS.

“Why would we choose the lion’s mouth?” said Councillor Parker. “Council terms are now four years which makes it difficult enough to get people to run for councils, and now we are responsible-liable for our water treatment plants, and now we are being criticized in public. All of this is making it harder to get people to run for councils,”

“And technically, if there are no issues, there is no need to hire an investigator,” said Councillor Sharon Alkenbrack.

Councillor Barb Erskine pointed out there is a cost to have LAS carry out any investigations. There is no cost to have the Ombudsman carry out investigations.

“But the public admonishment is not right, it is not professional,” said Councillor Parker.

“Again, if we don’t run into trouble or have anyone having to register a complaint, there won’t be any need to hire an investigator,” said Councillor Alkenbrack.

“If a person files a complaint and it is found to be viable, that’s one thing. If we’ve done something wrong we take our lumps and make changes. But we don’t need the childish and condescending remarks Mr. Marin has made in the public,” said Councillor Imrie.

Councillor Erskine suggested the council could go with LAS this year, and “review it after a year.”

“Right now the way things are set up the Ombudsman investigates complaints by default. But the municipalities can choose two other options, hire its own investigator or engage the services of an investigator externally. LAS is a company run by AMO (Association of Municipalities of Ontario) they have a closed meeting investigation service for complaints,” Councillor Imrie told the Recorder after the meeting.

He called the comments made by Mr. Marin in several national newspapers as “very sarcastic and condescending. As I tried to explain at our meeting, if we make a mistake and do something wrong we have to take steps to correct it. But there wasn’t any kind of conspiracy on our part, we made a mistake. But we don’t need to be taken to task publicly in this manner when we have already made the changes in our procedural bylaws.”

“The fact that the Ombudsman makes it sound as if we did something intentional is nefarious behaviour and off-putting,” said Councillor Imrie. “There was no criminality in what we did. The fact that we held a closed meeting and decided to talk about something we hadn’t originally intended to be wrong, and steps have been taken by council to correct this.” He also feels the Ombudsman investigation should have included all members of council, not just the mayor and clerk-treasurer, but all council members.

It will cost the township approximately $3,000 to hire the services of LAS, if an investigation takes place. But if there are no investigations it would cost $300 for a retainer fee.

Council passed a resolution at its meeting last week for paperwork to be completed and pay the necessary fee to LAS for their services, for a year, after which council can review the services.