City Councillors decide at October 16th meeting to wait for staff report on issue
A News Commentary by Doug Draper
Posted October 16, 2017 on Niagara At Large
Niagara, Ontario – City councillors in St. Catharines have deferred a motion calling on the Ontario government to appoint a special supervisor to take over the management of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority.
The motion, introduced at the council’s October 16th meeting by veteran city councillor Bruce Williamson, charges that a special supervisor is needed because, among other things, the current NPCA managers and board members “continue to demonstrate an inability to operate an effective Conservation Authority that respects its mandate and operates in a transparent and accountable way.”
Williamson’s motion went on to talk about the recent laying off of front-line staff needed to perform its role as a protector and preserver of environmental lands.
But the NPCA’s CAO Mark Brickell, the chair of its board, Fort Erie regional councillor Sandy Annunziata and board member and St. Catharines regional councillor Bruce Timms – in presentations they made to the council, – stressed that the charges in the motion are incorrect and that they are running an organization that is complying with the terms of Ontario’s Conservation Act and is doing a great job for people in the Niagara, Hamilton and Haldimand-Norfolk area where it has jurisdiction.
Todd McDonald, a consultant hired by the NPCA to do a review of how well it is complying with its strategic plan, added that his assessment shows that the Conservation Authority, which he recalled was “a troubled organization” when he first got involved with it in 2012, is now operating according to all the relevant standards and practices in the province.
Brickell went on to concede that there has been a good deal of bad news getting around about the NPCA in recent years and the body has to do a better job of getting news about the “good things” it is doing in the region out. At least some of those communicating negative things about the NPCA, he added, are doing it for political reasons and are just taking “political shots.”
The council also heard from a Niagara area citizen with an expertise in ecology and biodiversity, Owen Bjorgan, who cast doubt on claims the NPCA has made in the past that provincially significant wetlands can be removed or “offset” to make way for urban development and replaced somewhere else.
Lucy Morton, a representative for the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) representing some of the front-line employees at the NPCA, including eight who were recently let go, also made a presentation on how the cutting of employees is hurting the body’s ability to protection watersheds in the region. She also discussed a survey the union recently had done, concluding that a significant number of the employees have either experienced or witnessed harassment in the workplace – a survey, NPCA managers claim, has little or no credibility.
Welland Riding MPP Cindy Forster, who has been calling on the province for well over a year now to address a host of questions and concerns members of the public and local councils have raised about the NPCA, sent a letter to the St. Catharines council in support of Williamson’s motion.
The letter read as follows –
“Mayor Walter Sendzik and Members of City Council
It is my understanding that a motion will be presented to St. Catharines City Council tonight calling on the Government to appoint a supervisor for the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA).
While the NPCA deems my efforts as a lot of noise, as I said in the legislature this has been going on for a number of years and having a voice or opinion on an issue with a taxpayer funded agency should not lead to litigation.
I would like to advise members of council that I have introduced the notice of motion to be debated at the all-party public accounts committee meeting this Wednesday requesting the Auditor General to audit the NPCA.
I am also seeking an amendment to Bill 136, the Conservation Authorities Act that will allow a supervisor to be appointed to Conservation Authorities when needed including the NPCA.
We anticipate that this legislation will be before committee in the next couple of weeks. As you are aware, the government determines the schedule of legislation at committees.
With the recent termination of 25% of NPCA unionized employees, all Niagara MPPs are on side for action to be taken by the Province regarding the operations of the NPCA. A survey of employees at the NPCA conducted by the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers found that 86.5% of the workers surveyed said that they have been verbally harassed in the workplace, that they can’t sleep at night when they go home, that they don’t want to come to work.
I know the CAO of the NPCA terms my actions as “Massive Political Interference” but since 2013 I have been raising the concerns of constituents, former NPCA employees and environmentalists who are deeply concerned with the direction the NPCA is taking.
I thank St. Catharines City Council for debating this motion to appoint a Provincial Supervisor for the NPCA.
Cindy Forster, MPP”
At the end of it all, however, the council decided to hold off any further consideration of Williamson’s motion until it gets a report from city staff addressing questions and concerns raised abut the NPCA.
With that, Brickell, Annunziata and company managed to at least stall a possible situation where one local municipal council after another follows the St. Catharines council’s lead in calling on Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and her government to appoint a special supervisor to clean out the current management and hire new people to run the NPCA.
Niagara At Large will update our readers on what happens with efforts by Forster and OPSEU representatives to press the provincial government to appoint a supervisor.
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