Secret meetings about burying nuclear waste, a Camaro bought with city reserve funds and hundreds of expense violations by a mayor’s office: welcome to the wild west of Ontario municipal politics.
There seems to be no shortage of scandals rocking cities and towns across the province in recent years, leaving many wondering what is going on in the municipal sector. With new council terms set to begin across Ontario, the question is: will anything change?
Deeply important issues affecting the management of cities have been ignored for years. For example, in many Ontario cities, developers continue to have direct access to municipal officials, often with little oversight. The line between politicians’ private fundraising efforts and how they use such activities to gain influence is blurred. Conflict of interest laws deal with votes in council chambers but don’t address what council members do outside them.
Ontario sets the rules for all municipal councils, and news from Queen’s Park this week suggests the province believes the municipal sector is in need of effective oversight.
For Ontario ombudsman André Marin, it won’t come soon enough. Marin has been leading the charge to give his office new powers to deal with the province’s 444 municipalities.
“What strikes me with municipalities is that they have no clue what it means to be accountable. They think that an election every four years is good enough, but what do they do in between?” These are harsh words from Marin, who is confident he will soon get sweeping powers to hold municipalities accountable with the passage of Bill 8.
“The provincial parliament has seven officers of parliament. Every dollar spent is overseen by seven officers of parliament. Federally, there’s similar numbers of officers of Parliament,” Marin said. “What do you have municipally? Absolutely nothing. There’s so much time spent on spending money to save face as opposed to providing true oversight. Bill 8 is long overdue.”
The bill is currently before legislators at Queen’s Park. If enacted it would give Marin the power to investigate complaints filed against municipal officials by a taxpayer.
“Bill 8 would, if passed, extend the jurisdiction of the Ontario ombudsman to include municipalities and provide everyone with access to an ombudsman,” Mark Cripps, a spokesman for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, stated via email this week.
But the real news is that the ministry is considering updates to widely criticized conflict of interest laws. Under Ontario law, an elected official must abstain from voting on an issue where he or she, or an immediate family member, stands to gain financially from a vote.
“The ministry is reviewing the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, and is considering Justice Cunningham’s recommendations as well as stakeholder input, as part of the review,” Cripps wrote.
In 2010-11, Justice Douglas Cunningham led the inquiry into a conflict of interest charge against Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion. He said McCallion violated the spirit of the law while aggressively lobbying for a $1.5-billion hotel-convention centre to be developed by her son’s company.
But she didn’t violate the municipal act because she declared a conflict when the issue came up in council, he wrote. That meant she faced no penalties.
Cunningham also said more penalty options are needed. Currently, the act allows for one punishment for a guilty finding: removal from office.
“It is clear that Mississauga, and indeed all Ontario municipalities, requires a better ethical infrastructure,” Cunningham wrote at the time.
Other examples of behaviour at the municipal level that have come under fire include:
• From 2005 until recently, Bruce County mayors held secret meetings about disposing nuclear waste near Lake Huron, violating provincial law that requires full public disclosure and engagement on such issues.
• Oshawa council voted not to renew the contract of its auditor general last year and eliminated the position after he prepared a damning report about how the city’s officials handled a land purchase deal.
• Brampton Mayor Susan Fennell’s office violated the city’s rules on spending 266 times over seven years, according to a forensic audit done this summer by Deloitte Canada.
• Former Oshawa mayor John Gray picked out a bright orange Camaro for his own use, using $38,000 from the city’s reserve funds in 2009.
The issue of closed-door meetings is particularly troubling for Marin. The act that governs council behaviour says a closed meeting can be called only if one or more of the following conditions are met: the issue deals with the security of the property, personal matters about an identifiable individual, land sales or purchases, labour relations, legal action or potential legal action, or advice that is subject to solicitor-client privilege.
“We’ve been investigating closed (in camera) meetings since 2008 … what we found is simply incredible,” Marin said.
He pointed to the actions of elected officials in Bruce County: “They were meeting for a decade on disposing nuclear waste in people’s backyard in cottage country — doing it in secret … so cottagers wouldn’t know where it was buried.”
The Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO), a member-driven advocacy group representing the province’s municipalities, has concerns with Bill 8, specifically the impression created that municipalities can’t govern themselves using existing rules and laws. The group also worries the bill might cost municipalities too much money that could be used for more pressing needs.
“The ombudsman appears to think that it’s wrong for AMO or municipal governments to have any opinion on this bill or how to improve it,” AMO executive director Pat Vanini wrote in an email.
“If we differ with the ombudsman, it is here … AMO believes that good government is best achieved when municipalities take on the difficult task of earning the trust and respect of the public that they serve.”
Vanini added that any recommendations should “avoid changes that draw resources away from the delivery of important programs and services.”
Marin addresses the criticism head on, saying change is long overdue.
“AMO’s out of sync on this issue. They’ve enjoyed the Old Boys club of secrecy, doing business in the dark — why would you want to change it? That’s the good life.”
John Mascarin, a lawyer working in the field of municipal governance, said he sees the issue of accountability from the perspective of those defending municipalities and of those calling for change.
“From the municipal side, a lot of people are saying, ‘Too much intervention.’ I know the municipal sector hates any type of oversight. Bill 8, this is being rebelled upon by a lot of municipalities.”
But he added that all the news about municipal misconduct over the past four years can’t be ignored. Like Marin, he points to Toronto as a model, highlighting the city’s mandatory requirement for an integrity commissioner, an auditor general and a lobbyist registrar.
These came as a result of the city’s computer leasing scandal in the late 1990s, involving allegations of misappropriation of funds and conflict of interest.
Mascarin says all Ontario municipalities should use the Toronto model. Otherwise, he said, we will continue to see more of the same in cities across the province.