Council here will seek a meeting with municipal affairs minister Ted McMeekin about new legislation allowing ratepayers to direct complaints about municipal services to the provincial Ombudsman’s office.
Council agreed at its Jan. 5 meeting to request a delegation with McMeekin at the combined Ontario Good Roads Association/Rural Ontario Municipal Association (OGRA/ROMA) conference Feb. 21 to 24 in Toronto.
CAO Bill White told council the Public Sector and MPP Accountability and Transparency Act, proclaimed in 2014, comes into effect this year “with little guidance on how it will work.”
White said the legislation allows complaints regarding any municipal service to be referred to the Ombudsman for review.
In 2014, Minto had delegations with both the municipal affairs minister and deputy premier about the act. At the time, said White, officials, including the deputy premier, assured the town “procedures would be in place to ensure people fully exhausted local appeal processes before the Ombudsman would become involved.”
White said the province also promised complaints would be tracked and grouped so the Ombudsman would only be expected to become involved “if there was a trend” in concerns being expressed.
“I am assuming that if someone has a pothole that we haven’t fixed they will have to prove to them that they have been to this council and sat at this table and said, ‘Why won’t you fix my pothole?” and you will have said ‘Because we can’t afford to’ or whatever the reason is,” said White.
“That’s in theory how it’s supposed to work but there is no guideline to ensure that that is, in effect, what is going to happen.”
White said his main concern is spending time filing reports with the Ombudsman’s office about routine ratepayer complaints.
“I am not afraid of any inquiry to that effect, except for the time and cost that puts forward,” he explained.
White said the minister of municipal affairs “promised us in 2014 that there would be some direction on this and I don’t see it here.”
“I don’t see it either,” agreed Mayor George Bridge.
Deputy mayor Ron Faulkner suggested the system should contain provisions to make complainants accountable.
“If it’s proven to be vexatious, then the complainer has to be accountable for something … it’s very difficult to handle vexatious people and we all have them I and really think they have to take that into consideration and put in a clause about that,” Faulkner stated.
Bridge said, “If your starting to talk about snow removal and potholes, you’re opening it up for everybody to vex on you.
“I believe the Ombudsman in another five years will have about 5,000 people working for them ‘cause they’ll be doing our job – and I wonder why? It’s not that broke. And it comes down to, most of the time, we sit in this room and have to make decisions based on funding and it’s lack of funding that causes those potholes to be there sometimes and all the other things.”
Bridge continued, “I would like to get in front of the minster again and say ‘How are we doing this on the dollars we’re getting, property taxes?’”
Council agreed to request a delegation with McMeekin, as well as the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change on funding and reporting on local climate change initiatives, and health minister Dr. Eric Hoskins on concerns about the New Graduate Entry Program for physicians.
Recording closed meetings
The annual report from the Ontario Ombudsman’s Office also sparked discussion earlier in the meeting when councillor Judy Dirksen commented on statistics indicating some municipalities were recording in-camera sessions of council.
“I thought it was interesting that there are some municipalities that record their closed meetings and we keep patting ourselves on the back because we are so special because we record these (open) meetings,” said Dirksen.
“Apparently there are people in Ontario that are more special than us because they record their closed meetings as well, I guess just in case you ever want to open the vault and look to see what happened at them.”
Bridge noted that council has discussed recording closed meetings in the past “and maybe staff can look at it again.” However, he noted, only 14 of 448 municipalities reported they are recording closed meetings.
“We’d still be leading edge if we did it,” agreed Dirksen.
“Then you’re into a security issue,” stated Faulkner. “You have to give some integrity to the system that we’re there with honourable intent. Boy I’d be careful about that.”
Bridge said he was pleased to see the Ombudsman offered some clarification on restrictions on councillors communicating at social gatherings.
“You can’t create a team in a vacuum. You have to have the ability to talk to people,” said Bridge, who stated he believes Minto council makes appropriate use of in-camera meetings.
“We keep them very short, I give Bill credit for that. I know some councils’ closed (meetings) seem to last a long time.”
Dirksen agreed, stating, “I think we’re totally above board.”
Bridge expressed frustration that policy development work of the provincial and federal levels of government is “all behind closed doors, all done in caucus. We don’t hear anything about what the true discussions are. And yet we are held under this big light as, I would call ourselves, part-time politicians … for some reason we’re under this scrutiny. I agree maybe some of us need it, but at the end of the day we do have integrity at this level because we walk the streets.”
Bridge added he has no problem with oversight organizations like the Ombudsman’s office.
“I just think they should shine the light somewhere north of us or above us sometimes as well,” he said.