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City loses public health case in court; appeals to province

by David Meyer

GUELPH - The city is claiming something of a victory in its court case against Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health (WDGPH), but its opponents also say they are the winners in the judicial dispute.

Justice David Price dismissed the city’s complaints about the health unit’s ability to build two headquarters last week, but he did state the city should have the right to have the province involved in deciding if WDGPH can spend money the city is required to pay.

WDGPH’s view, as explained in a press release, is, “The city’s application was dismissed and they were unsuccessful on all counts.”

Public health board chairman Amanda Rayburn added in that notice, “We will discuss the decision at our next meeting in Fergus on Nov. 2.”

Mayor Karen Farbridge, in answer to a request for an interview, left a phone message stating city council has now voted to ask the province to appoint an assessor to rule in the dispute.

Guelph has opposed the building of two new public health buildings in Orangeville and Guelph, arguing WDGPH has no right to run up bills the city has to pay.

The city would be liable for up to $10 million for the two buildings, and  its officials argue that could affect its credit rating and halt other capital projects in Guelph.

The province already refused to get involved but the city will ask again.

Medical Officer of Health Dr. Nicola Mercer said in an interview,

“The courts decided very clearly on all points in favour of the health unit ... the city was unsuccessful ... They can claim what they wish. The judge decided in favour of the health unit.”

As for asking for an assessor again, Mercer said it is up to WDGPH to decide. She added if the province refuses to provide an assessor, the projects will proceed as planned.

Meanwhile, Guelph has formally withdrawn its three representatives from health unit meetings.

“We are asking them when they will reappoint to this board.

“I look forward to welcoming any new members from the city,” said Rayburn, who was unavailable for further comment.

Mercer said removing the board members does not mean the city is off the hook for its responsibilities.

In fact, Price’s ruling stated, “I find that the city does not possess the power either to withdraw unilaterally from the board or to veto the board’s decisions, even when they have the effect of imposing significant financial obligations on the city.”

Guelph issued a press release stating the Public Health Act specifies an assessor, and not the Minister of Health, that must decide if a complaint warrants investigation and, if it does, that must conduct an investigation and report to the minister.

Farbridge stated, “While we did not get the decision we were hoping for, Justice Price clearly acknowledged the overarching governance issues in his decision.

The city has always maintained that the governance model is flawed and needs to change. With the support of this decision, we will pursue assistance from the ministry.”

She added, “The city’s position has not changed: we need a provincially-appointed assessor to investigate the issues we have identified. In light of this court decision, we will repeat our request to the government of Ontario.”

Seeking costs

Wellington County officials have indicated they are getting tired of issues with Guelph costing ratepayers money.

The county and the city have been at odds for several years over social services and land ambulance service, and also a court action to force the city to pay its proper share for the Wellington Terrace nursing home.

The city attempted to take over social services and wanted to run its own seniors’ facility, but was rebuffed by the province. Meanwhile, the county lost its case while trying to take over ambulance service from the city.

County Warden Chris White said in an interview of the latest court action, “We’re going after costs. You want to try to put the brakes on these things.”

Country Treasurer Craig Dyer said on Tuesday morning the county’s legal costs on the court case are about $125,000.

Dufferin County clerk Pam Hillock said on Tuesday morning Dufferin’s costs were about $45,000, but not all of them are in yet.

White said, “I don’t think it would be fair to ask county residents to pick up the costs when we won the case.”

Guelph made the two counties a party to the judicial action.

White said of the judge’s decision, “It matches our interpretation of the legislation” - that Guelph cannot withdraw from its financial responsibility to pay its share of the costs of the two buildings.

Those costs are estimated at about $22 million in total, with the city paying about $10 million.

He also noted, “Guelph was on par with us right up to the end” when the costs were finally announced.

Former Wellington warden and current WDGPH board member Joanne Ross-Zuj said Farbridge was on the facilities committee that spent four years looking at options for buildings.

She, too, did not like the idea that county residents got dragged into a court case.

“Guelph has an issue with a provincial act,” she said. “To have two counties involved in litigation was at the expense of the ratepayers. We only operate under the act. The ruling was quite clear we are spending correctly.”

As for the city running into debt problems, Ross-Zuj suggested the county also faces financial challenges, but it budgets for its responsibilities.

Guelph solicitor Donna Jaques said in an interview Price ruled that Minister of Health Deb Matthews did not have the power to refuse to appoint an assessor, which she said, “is an interesting twist in that decision.”

She added of the court decision, “I don’t think the city necessarily lost.”

She stated one reason Guelph balked at the costs at the last minute was its belief the province would pay 75% of the costs of the two buildings. When it learned the three municipalities were to pay all those costs, it pulled out.

As for when an assessor is appointed, Jaques said she has no idea, and noted that could depend on who is appointed Minister of Health in the new provincial government.

She added any of the judicial rulings can be appealed.

Jaques was unable to state the city’s legal costs, but did note Guelph has four lawyers on staff.

Meanwhile, Mercer said the board is proceeding with the Orangeville building because the board is no longer under a court injunction.

She said the building should start in late fall or early spring in order to be ready when the board’s lease in Dufferin County runs out.

As for the Guelph building the board wants to erect on University of Guelph lands, Mercer said that project is “a little bit up in the air.”

She noted the board’s legal costs for this recent effort is about $150,000 to $200,000.

Jaques said WDGPH costs are divided among the three municipalities and the province.

Mercer concluded city residents need have no fears that they will be unprotected while the issues are played out.

“[I want to] reassure the population the health unit will continue to function,” she said. “There will be no changes despite the confrontational environment.”

 

October 21, 2011

 
 

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