Minto streamlining complaint process in response to Ombudsman oversight

Municipal officials here are seeking to streamline the town’s complaints process in responses to legislative changes in the role of the provincial ombudsman.

As of Jan. 1 the Ontario Ombudsman is allowed to take public complaints about the general business of municipalities.

According to the agency’s website: “The ombudsman may be able to help with issues such as concerns about municipal services (e.g., snow removal,  parking, garbage collection), programs (e.g., recreation programs, housing, Ontario Works),  administration of taxes, municipally-owned hydro utilities, conduct of council members,  conflicts of interest, or the work of local accountability officers.” This is in addition to closed meeting investigations already done for many local municipalities.

In a report on March 1, CAO Bill White explained Minto officials had discussed implementation concerns about this oversight with provincial  representatives, including the deputy premier before the legislation was finalized.

“The  Ministry of Municipal Affairs denied our most recent delegation request and appear not to have been involved in implementation as there is no discussion on their website. Very little guidance is being offered at any level,” states the report.

White stated new ombudsman Paul Dube is expected to bring “a professional and reasoned tone to the office,” but municipalities were encouraged at the recent OGRA/ROMA convention to upgrade their complaint tracking policies, and consider use of current Municipal Act tools such as codes of conduct and accountability officers to formalize complaint handling.

The report points out the Municipal Act allows an integrity commissioner, municipal ombudsman and auditor general to be appointed to provide oversight in key areas of municipal business. However, it notes the ombudsman’s new oversight role applies even if a municipality has all these appointments in place, although the ombudsman cannot become involved until the local appointee has made a decision.

When Minto complaint policies and procedures are in order, the town could simply accept the independent oversight from the ombudsman.

“This avoids duplicating the Ombudsman’s role by appointing separate officers all reporting to council,” White states.

“So we thought we would recommend that we consider a different role – let’s use the Ombudsman if they are going to be there for oversight,” White told council.

“Once the people have gone through our complaint process if there’s still an issue then we would welcome a review by the ombudsman.”

Other alternatives could include a joint appointment with the county or an adjacent municipality. Currently, Wellington County and other member municipalities have a common closed meeting investigator.  

Another alternative suggested by White would be to appoint one person to serve all three roles “if council felt these positions all could add value to the town’s complaint process.”

“This is just a matter of clarification once again,” observed councillor Ron Elliott. “Most  of this stuff, they’ve been rules all throughout the years … it’s just reinventing the wheel that’s already there.”

“I think this is more or less putting in writing what our practices have been,” agreed White.

Mayor George Bridge said he doubts the ombudsman’s office would get involved in a local complaint if a thorough procedure has been followed “if you can show a paper trail.”

However, he noted, “The problem is the whole thing causes more work. No matter how you slice it we’re gonna have to have more work … to look after what we already look after, that’s more frustration for me.”

Council received the report,  which included a draft code of conduct, accountability, transparency and complaint policy, and invited councillors to provide comments prior to presentation of a draft bylaw at a future meeting.