“I extend on behalf of Regional Council our apologies for the offensive content of the delegation (meaning Niagara resident Ed Smith) in question.” – Niagara Regional Chair Alan Caslin in a June 9th, 2016 letter to Niagara Peninsual Conservation Authority Board Chair Bruce Timms
By Doug Draper
Posted June 14th, 2016 on Niagara At Large
On May 19th of this year, St. Catharines citizen Ed Smith, accompanied by more than two dozen other Niagara area citizens, appeared as a delegation at a regional council meeting to present a case for doing a detailed “value for money” audit of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority’s operations.
Smith had appeared before the regional council a month earlier, on April 7th, 2016, along with numerous other citizens from across Niagara who packed the council chambers that night, to oppose a bid by the same Conservation Authority to “pilot” something called biodiversity offsetting – code for destroying a provincially significant wetland in one spot and attempting to grow a comparable wetland somewhere else – in order to make way for buildings and pavement.
At the May 19th meeting, Smith returned to the council to press for a detailed audit of the NPCA due to questions and concerns he and other citizens have over how the Conservation Authority’s administrators and board members are spending millions of dollars of money they receive each year – most of it coming from municipal taxpayers in Niagara, with some coming from the neighbouring regions of Hamilton and Haldimand.
Smith arrived at the May 19th meeting prepared to make a verbal presentation, accompanied by a Power Point Slideshow, and he brought a pile of documents he planned to circulate, when necessary, to back up his points.
But some regional councillors wondered if Smith should be allowed to speak at all since they said they only received the material he would be presenting within a few days of the meeting and since, as Bob Gale, a councillor from Niagara Falls, put it, some of the material might be libelous or defamatory.
Those councillors were narrowly overruled by others who voted to hear Smith. But when he finished, Bruce Timms, a St. Catharines regional councillor who also serves as chair of the NPCA’s board, asked for an opportunity to stand and address parts of the presentation he felt where defamatory to him, including a concern Smith raised that Timms may sometimes be engaged in a conflict of interest in his dual role as a regional councillor and board chair.
Timms said he has not engaged in any conflicts of interests in his role as NPCA chair. He also argued that the audit Smith was pressing for is not necessary because the Conservation Authority has an audit done on itself every year.
Following the meeting, Smith insisted that there was nothing libelous or defamatory about raising concerns about the leadership of the NPCA, including possible conflicts of interests involving any of the regional councillors appointed by their council peers to serve on the NPCA board, or in his taking issue with a comment Fort Erie regional councillor and board member Sandy Annunsiata made at the April 7th meeting that the NPCA has not engaged in any lobbying for biodiversity offsetting.
Among the documents Smith was prepared to show at the May 19th but was not given time to, was one showing that in 2015 the NPCA board approved a contract worth $$24,000 with a professional communications firm called Kealy and Associates to develop a “strategic communications plan” for issues like biodiversity offsetting.
Niagara Regional chair Allan Caslin was away for the May 19th meeting but later met with St. Catharines regional councillor Brian Heit, whose turn it was to chair the meeting that night and who repeatedly argued that Smith should be allowed to speak.
In a June 14th interview with Niagara At Large, Heit said that Caslin told him “the Conservation Authority wanted an apology (for what unfolded around Smith’s delegation at the May 19th meeting) and I responded that I didn’t think it was appropriate to apologize because any citizen has a right to appear before council and raise concerns.
Heit added that Timms was given somewhere between 19 and 19 minutes – well over the 10 minutes usually allowed – to respond to Smith’s presentation.
Nevertheless, Caslin forwarded the following letter of apology to Timms and the NPCA board, which was included in a package board members received for their June 15th meeting.
Office of the Regional Chair / Alan Caslin
Mr. Bruce Timms,
Chair, Board of Directors
Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority
June 9, 2016
Dear Mr. Timms,
During the meeting of Regional Council on Thursday May 19th, a delegation was made by Mr. Ed Smith, Resident, City of St. Catharines with respect to “Selection of Value for Money Audit Areas (Agenda item 11.1-Minutes AC 3-2016, Minute Item 6.1). Unfortunately, I was unable to attend this meeting and it was chaired by Councillor Brian Heit.
Upon review of the deliberations that evening, via video and recording and the meeting minutes, I am aware that you raised point of personal privilege. Your point stated that due to the libelous and defamatory content of the Power Point slideshow accompanying Mr. Smith’s presentation, that it should not form part of the official record of the meeting. While Chair Heit ruled against your point of privilege, Councillor Quirk challenged the ruling of the Chair, a challenge which was subsequently supported by a majority of council.
As a result of this decision by Regional chair in support of your concerns, I extend on behalf of Regional Council our apologies for the offensive content of the delegation in question, and any and all comments by the presenter that supported the allegations outlined in the delegation.
It has also come to my attention that Mr. Smith’s original submission of his presentation contained other allegations and defamatory statements that were requested to be removed by the Regional Clerk in consultation with legal counsel. I am concerned that regional staff are now editing content for defamation material and other information outside the jurisdiction of regional government. Thus, I have requested the Regional Clerk to review the process by which PowerPoint slideshows and delegation summaries are reviewed and provided to Regional Council in advance of meetings, and to ensure that all existing policies related to delegations and their content are strictly followed.
Once again, please accept my sincere apologies for the events of May 19th and any harm caused to you or other NPCA Board Members on Regional Council. I request that you circulate this letter to all members of the NPCA Board of Directors.
Alan Caslin, BSc, MSc
Regional Chair, Niagara Region
Heit, who continues to stand behind his position to allow Smith to make his presentation that night, had the following to say about Caslin’s charge that the presentation included content that was “offensive.”
“Was there anything truly offensive? I don’t believe so other than he (Mr. Smith) was question what was going on (at the NPCA) and 11 of the 15 representatives (on the NPCA board) are representatives of the Region elected by the people,” Heit told Niagara At Large.
“So I guess if I was one of those (councillors sitting on the board) I might be offended too that someone was questioning what I was doing, if I was that sensitive. But if you were doing the right thing, why would you be offended. Prove that they are wrong by doing an audit.”
This past June 9th, at a more recent meeting of Niagara regional council, Thorold councillor Henry D’Angela said he would like to see an audit that goes beyond the annual audits Timms was talking about – an audit, said D’Angela, that takes a more detailed look at how public money the NPCA gets is being spent.
“I want to make sure we’re getting value for money from the NPCA,” D’Angela said, adding that he fails to understand why there has “always been reluctance to have this done.”
At the same June 9th meeting, a request by Smith to speak in favour of an audit again was refused and a motion to do an audit was ultimately defeated.
For his part, Caslin cast a tie-breaking vote, defeating a motion by D’Angela to defer the whole matter to the next meeting of regional council.
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