The Chair (Mr. Ernie Hardeman): I call the meeting of the public accounts committee to order. This is the meeting for Wednesday, October 25. ……
Ms. Cindy Forster: I move, pursuant to section 17 of the Auditor General Act, that the Standing Committee on Public Accounts request that the Auditor General conduct a full financial audit of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority.
The Chair (Mr. Ernie Hardeman): You’ve heard the motion. Debate?
Welland Rding MPP Cindy Forster
Ms. Cindy Forster: Thank you, Chair. Some of you have heard me talk in the Legislature. You’ve heard Mr. Bradley talk in the Legislature. You’ve heard Mr. Oosterhoff talk in the Legislature, and Mr. Gates, as well.
Our Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority encompasses Niagara and, actually, parts of Hamilton. It has a catchment area of about a million constituents. Nine municipal councils, including the council in Hamilton, have called upon the NPCA to have the Auditor General actually do a forensic audit. When I talk about financial audit, I’m actually looking for even more than just the finances of the agency.
If I can give you a little bit of perspective of the kinds of issues that have actually been happening in this situation: Currently, conservation authorities across the province really have no oversight other than following provincial government policy under MNR and planning acts. When you talk to the conservation authority, they say, “Well, we have no oversight. In fact, they hire us. We’re their employer.” When you talk to the MNR, they say they have no ability to address any of the issues that have actually been happening in our NPCA.
Issues have been going on. Since about 2013, I’ve been talking about the issues at the NPCA. There have been questionable property acquisitions, where the NPCA actually bought property that, eight years earlier, the region refused to buy because the price was outrageous.
At the end of the day, the NPCA, in 2014, bought this property at a much-inflated price. Certainly, there were many questions raised around that issue. They ended up actually getting; I think it was 15 acres of a 54-parcel piece of property that the region had rejected eight years earlier for 60% or 80% of the price. I don’t have the details. There were a lot of questions raised around that issue.
Niagara, Ontario resident and retired Canadian military officer Ed Smith has been slapped with a lawsuit from the NPCA and its former CAO Carmen D’Angelo, who is now CAO for Niagara’s regional government
The NPCA is currently suing a private citizen, Ed Smith, a retired military gentleman, for speaking out about the NPCA—a SLAPP suit—and have incurred $200,000 in legal expenses in 2016. That doesn’t count any of the legal expenses that have been incurred in 2017. There are two regional councillors also being sued by a company who actually got a tender, who sued the NPCA as well when they didn’t receive full payment for that actual contract. That suit has now been settled out of court, but the two regional councillors are still being sued by this company just because they shared a report that was prepared by Ed Smith, who is being sued by the NPCA.
The boards of directors at the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority—so you’ll know that across the province, the conservation authorities appoint in different ways. Sometimes it’s a mix of public appointments to elected officials; sometimes it’s all elected officials. In our situation, it’s mostly elected officials and I think three public members.
The board of directors appointed by Hamilton city council to the NPCA was a gentleman by the name of Carmen D’Angelo. Carmen worked for Hamilton EMS. He was appointed by the Hamilton council to the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority. During his tenure there, he takes a leave of absence from the board, and then he’s awarded, actually, a contract by that same board for about $40,000 to work on a strategic ………. from the board, and then he’s awarded, actually, a contract by that same board for about $40,000 for work on a strategic plan. Once that’s done, he goes back to the board. He then takes another leave of absence, and then he is actually appointed as CAO to the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority. All the while, he’s sitting as a board member at the conservation authority, which we believe and our community believes is really in contravention of the act itself, because board members shouldn’t profit from having a seat on the board.
Another board member, who is also an elected regional councilor, takes a leave of absence around the same time that Mr. D’Angelo takes a leave of absence. While he’s on that leave of absence, he’s actually awarded a senior management position at the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, a position he didn’t even apply for. He actually had applied for the finance position; he wasn’t successful in that job, so then he was awarded a senior management position as director of operations.
Restructuring then occurred around the time of these two appointments, and 19 people were restructured out of their jobs. I have the list of names—I’m happy to provide that. Since that point, two more people have been terminated; one a manager, another one a GIS technician. Just one month ago, eight more front-line employees were given layoff notice.
So over a period of three or three and a half years, a 60% turnover of the staff—at an agency that only has 50 employees to start with, including their management staff. I think that’s a huge turnover number.
Then there’s the issue of Thundering Waters, which is a Chinese development. Chinese developers bought a large parcel of property in Niagara Falls that the MNR has determined is mainly protected wetlands, so the vast majority of it—last I read, almost 90% of it—cannot be developed. But we have our conservation authority—Bruce Timms, who was the Chair—lobbying to actually get MNR to change their minds on this project. It’s a 196-acre piece of property in Niagara Falls. It has Carolinian forests, and it has, as I said, a huge amount of wetlands.
When the government called for comments on biodiversity offsetting, the NPCA jumped on this and were trying to get this significant wetlands on as a pilot project. It doesn’t meet MNR’s policy, so that has been a huge issue in our community.
We’ve had numerous complaints from local residents that when their issues go to the NPCA, they are ignored. They let developers move along and do whatever they choose to do, even if it’s in violation, ?? and they don’t actually go after the developers when they are in contravention of the policies.
The watershed mandate for the NPCA—these eight people that were laid off a few weeks ago, they were watershed employees. There was a letter of understanding for the last 10 years between the region of Niagara and the conservation authority, and that transferred some of the watershed work of approving permits and dealing with those issues. Now the NPCA is saying that they’re not going to do that work anymore; they’re going to transfer that work back to the region. But, in the meantime, before any discussion even occurred with local municipalities, they laid off these eight employees from the watershed program. We don’t know how they’re actually going to meet their mandate without having those people working. They didn’t even have them work the notice period. They just laid them off. That issue is another one that needs to be dealt with. People believe that they laid them off because that will assist them in balancing their budget for their legal fees.
There are suggestions by many … that will assist them in balancing their budget for their legal fees.
There are suggestions by many that the positions that have been filled have not been filled with employees with any skills, abilities, or expertise around the areas of conservation, but have been filled by friends of the new people who have been hired at the top.
Recently, after terminating these eight watershed employees, they hired two more communications officers, so that they now have three communications officers for an agency that only has 50 employees.
Lincoln regional councilor Bill Hodgson and now former NPCA board member was censured by the NPCA board for reasons that have still not been fully disclosed to the public. Last winter, while still on the board, Hodgson pushed for a full and independent audit of the NPCA.
They censured Bill Hodgson. Bill Hodgson was a regional councillor from the municipality of Lincoln—a man with the utmost integrity; I worked with him for many years ??at the region—because he spoke out about some of the policies and practices that were happening at the region. And because he called for an audit of the agency, he was censured by the NPCA and embarrassed in public. The NPCA has refused to release to the public what Mr. Hodgson supposedly did, so his name really has been smeared across the community, and he chose to resign as opposed to continue to have to deal with them.
They’ve instituted a code of conduct policy recently that basically ??says if anybody on the board speaks out against the NPCA they will be censured. They’re basically muzzling their board members with this new policy.
There’s been widespread workplace harassment. There was a survey done by OHCOW, and 86% of the people who completed the survey—and I think that the majority, 60-some %, completed the survey—indicated that they had been harassed or they had witnessed harassment in the workplace. In fact, Jocelyn Baker, one of the terminated managers, who was terminated two years ago, and who spoke out about this widespread harassment, is now being sued by the NPCA even though she has been terminated two years ago.
FOIs are being stalled. Most recently—just in the last couple of weeks—the NPCA is even ??refusing to respond to FOIs from Ed Smith, saying that he’s being frivolous and vexatious, so they’re now having to get other people apply for freedom of information ??requests, because they’re refusing to respond to him.
I was personally threatened with a SLAPP suit by the same company that got the contract that ended up suing the NPCA and settling out of court. I’ve got a letter asking me to retract my statements and those kinds of things. It didn’t proceed, but you can tell from this story that there are a lot of issues.
In their latest budget, that they just presented about a month ago, they are proposing $863,000 of salary cuts in watershed and corporate services, but they’re increasing salaries in CAO and administration by a half a million dollars.
The public has lost a lot of faith and trust in this agency, and that’s outlined in the ongoing letters, emails, tweets and letters to the editor that continue to happen on a daily and weekly basis. The NPCA gets about 4% of their budget from the province; the rest of it comes from the region or the municipality, so the vast majority of it is public taxpayers’ dollars.
The city of Hamilton has been trying to end their relationship with the NPCA because they are attempting to increase their portion of the levy. That has been a topic of discussion as well.
We have been calling for the audit probably since January of last year. The Auditor General did offer to do an audit way back when and it was declined at that time by the chair, saying that they weren’t ready to proceed. But to my knowledge they really haven’t done anything about doing any kind of an audit, other than somebody’s auditing their strategic …
(Ms. Cindy Forster)
… weren’t ready to proceed. But to my knowledge they really haven’t done anything about doing any kind of an audit, other than somebody is auditing their strategic plan at the moment.
So as I said, all area MPPs have supported it. The Auditor General and at least three municipalities have come on board to even support a supervisor, but that isn’t actually anticipated under the MNR Act. We’re going to be trying to deal with that through amendments to Bill 136.
Certainly, people comment all the time that the NPCA has moved more towards putting their focus on development as opposed to conservation. That is a concern.
There have been a number of motions passed to amend the act. We’ll be dealing with them next week.
I guess the bottom line is that today we find ourselves with a community that believes that our NPCA has no accountability or transparency. They hold public meetings. You have to register for the public meeting and then they’ll tell you that the public meeting is full. Then the day before the meeting or the day of the meeting they’ll say, “Oh, by the way, we’ve got room.” Then when people actually show up to the meeting there are only eight people there. So, in fact, the meeting wasn’t full at all.
Yesterday, they announced that they were going to do a kickoff to their new plans that they’re going to be bringing forward, although they haven’t told us what those plans are. So my staff actually registered for me to attend the event. I received an email in my constit office saying that I wasn’t invited, that it was, in fact, for family and friends. It was by invitation only. How are you spending taxpayers’ dollars by invitation only when you’re about to make announcements about whatever plans you’re going to be proceeding with across a community with one million constituents and you’re not opening those kinds of things up to the public?
At the end of the day, I’m asking that the Auditor General be requested to do a full audit there, not just a financial audit, of the policies, the practices, the hirings, the firings, the finances, the tendering—as broad a review as her department can possibly do.
The Chair (Mr. Ernie Hardeman): Okay. Ms. Vernile.
Ms. Daiene Vernile: Thank you, Chair. MPP Forster has given a very compelling narrative on her concerns surrounding the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority. I know that we’ve heard similar comments from our colleague MPP Bradley, so we will be supporting you on this.
The Chair (Mr. Ernie Hardeman): Mr. Colle?
Toronto area Liberal MPP Mike Cole asked what the position of Niagara’s regional council is on the NPCA issue.
Mr. Mike Colle: Yes—anyway, I just have a number of questions that have been raised in my mind. I just wonder: The makeup of the conservation authority, who are the appointed members? And have other municipalities, other than Hamilton, made any effort to basically change their representatives on the board. Obviously, they send the representatives. What is Niagara regional council’s position on this? Have they not spoken publicly? I mean, there is a host of questions. I just find it unbelievable that it’s come to this point that there aren’t other mechanisms available to control a rogue conservation authority, that it has to come to the Auditor General here.
I guess the member, in frustration, is saying, “We’ve got to do something and this is the right thing to do,” but I’m just wondering whether there has got to be—and I’ve talked to member Bradley about this—there has got to be other mechanisms in place to deal with something that’s really gotten totally out of line with what the conservation authorities have been doing for about 100 years in Ontario. The vast majority of them are the real protectors of wetlands and greenspace. They are fending off development. They do an amazing job.
This rogue outfit: I don’t know how it got this bad and how they justify it, and how they send these members—because they are appointed. Most of them are public appointees, I would assume. Who are they sending to the board?
So I would just hope that somehow—and I’ll discuss it further with member Bradley and also the Minister of Natural Resources, whatever, to find a way of …… and I’ll discuss it further with member Bradley and also the Minister of Natural Resources, whatever, to find a way of dealing with this—beyond the Auditor General’s report, because this is more than an audit issue; this is a huge governance failure of an entity that is supposed to be protecting and sustaining one of the most beautiful parts of Canada. If you can’t protect the Niagara Peninsula, with the escarpment and the gorge—
Ms. Daiene Vernile: Niagara Falls.
Mr. Mike Colle: Yes, the gorge. So what have we come to that this most precious jewel—not only in Ontario; in Canada—has come to this point? How could this have happened? I know the member has tried to do everything, to the point where she’s been threatened. This is what they do, these people who claim to be in favour of development. But I just hope that somehow, maybe through the Auditor General who could make recommendations of what are other areas, because this is, again, more than just an auditing issue.
This is a real wake-up call, because, generally speaking, these boards—over the years, there have been some issues. We’ve had so many threats in the Toronto and area conservation authority over the years from development here, and they’ve stood up to it. That’s why we have the whole Hurricane Hazel conservation authority all the way down the Humber River, because the metro and area conservation authority has done some great work. I was on the board, actually, in Toronto for a while when Dick O’Brien was chairman.
That was the only big thing I have, because I think, somehow, we’ve got to really look at this from a governance—this should never have happened and shouldn’t happen in other places. But obviously, because of the present legislation, it never really took into account that these rogues could take over a conservation authority and manipulate it for their own purposes, which is beyond the pale, what’s been transpiring.
I know a little bit about it but not as much and as intimately as you, but I just find it’s especially acute to do this because when we were in Niagara Falls, doing the hearings, I just remembered going for a jog along the gorge there and I said, “Where else in the world would you rather be than running along by Niagara Falls and with the mist in your face as you’re seeing one of the great wonders of the world, and how precious that place is?” And that’s just one part of it, never mind the tender fruit lands and all the other—the escarpment, the sensitive areas.
Veteran Ontario Liberal Party MPP for St. Catharines, Jim Bradley is among those who have called for a full audit of the NPCA
I think that it’s important for this motion to be supported, but I would just hope, somehow, we can all work together to build something else to ensure that this thing is taken under control, whether a supervisor or whatever mechanisms there are. But I think it’s a critical issue that needs to be addressed with any means, and this is one of the means, possibly, but I think we need to do even more on this thing.
The Chair (Mr. Ernie Hardeman): Just a question, Mr. Colle. Did you want the researcher to get you the information on the—
Mr. Mike Colle: Yes. The appointment processes and the rules. This is beyond this committee. I just want it for my own information because I don’t want this to happen—
The Chair (Mr. Ernie Hardeman): Does the committee agree with that? Okay. The committee has said okay.
Mr. Ian Morris: I’d just like to point out one thing here that I found from the Ministry of Natural Resources. They have a policy document that speaks to the composition, and I can just quote it directly. Under the act, the Conservation Authorities Act, the conservation authority board’s “composition is determined…according to the proportion of the population from participating municipalities [living] within the watershed.” So essentially that’s the composition of the board.
Mr. Mike Colle: But I guess the thing that I was asking for was the other checks and balances that occur that are within the minister’s prerogative to ensure that if they are not following rules of due process and they are essentially violating their mandate, what sanctions are available and who can intervene and protect the public interest that’s within the legislation?
The Chair (Mr. Ernie Hardeman): I think if I could just clarify for the researcher and for the member to make sure we all agree. The appointment of the members based on population is also through the municipalities and I think the question was: Are the municipalities that are appointing the people … … the appointment of the members based on population is also through the municipalities and I think the question was whether the municipalities that are appointing the people having the same concern as the one. I think that’s what you mentioned in your remarks, Mr. Colle: Who’s doing the appointing—
Mr. Mike Colle: And can they revoke an appointment? Are there any processes in place where they’re monitored? Because I’m sure a lot of these, they’re violating the basic sustainability policies of the Niagara region and that council. That’s why I can’t understand why the Niagara regional council has not taken more aggressive action.
Mr. Ian Morris: Yes. Okay. I can look into that.
The Chair (Mr. Ernie Hardeman): Very good. Any further discussion? Again, I would just caution, as we did with the previous one, that we’re discussing the motion which is to ask the auditor to do the report and whether we agree or disagree with that.
Ms. Cindy Forster: Right. Correct.
I just wanted to briefly respond to Mr. Colle. At this point, regional council is actually appointing. The province used to appoint to conservation authorities and then they actually downloaded that responsibility to municipalities. There are some local municipalities in Niagara asking to take back the local appointments but where there are two tiers of government or where there’s only one tier of government it is the regional council’s responsibility.
In this particular case, I believe six mayors are appointed by the region, six regional councillors and then there are three public appointments. So with respect to the region, the region has really not weighed in on this NPCA issue at all. I don’t know why they haven’t but they haven’t, even though 12 of the sitting members come from their ranks.
I mean, there are a few people sitting on the board speaking out and speaking in support but they really have done that from their positions as a mayor of their community when the motions actually went to the various local municipalities.
The Chair (Mr. Ernie Hardeman): Further discussion? If not, the motion is before you and we’ll call the question. Is everybody ready to call the question?
Ms. Cindy Forster: Can we get a recorded vote?
The Chair (Mr. Ernie Hardeman): Recorded vote.
All those in favour?
Colle, Delaney, Dong, Forster, Hoggarth, Vernile.
The Chair (Mr. Ernie Hardeman): All those opposed? Seeing none, the motion is carried.
That concludes the two motions.
We will now go into closed session.
The committee continued in closed session at 0948.