“I had a call from the NPCA (Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority) telling me that I wasn’t welcome to attend their kickoff party to talk about their $1-million tree planting — I wasn’t welcome; it was only for friends and family, of which I was neither — and I wasn’t welcome to attend, even though the event was being paid for on the taxpayers’ dime..” – Welland Riding MPP Cindy Forster
“What essentially what essentially has happened is that people who are pro-development have been taking over the leadership of the Authority (NPCA), and those who are more environmentally inclined have been given the pink slip to head out the door, and have been silenced as well with agreements that compel them not to say anything about it.” – St. Catharines Riding MPP Jim Bradley
More Statements in the Ontario Legislature from Welland Riding MPP Cindy Forster and St. Catharines Riding MPP Jim Bradley
Posted December 11th, 2017 on Niagara At Large
(A Brief Foreword from Niagara At Large reporter and publisher Doug Draper – With all of the nonsense and madness that has been going on in this region of Niagara, Ontario in recent days, including the seizure of a daily newspaper’s computer and notes and his ejection from Niagara regional headquarters this past December 7th, some information Niagara At Large still wants to get posted for our readers has been delayed.
We apologies for that and in the days ahead, we will be getting some of that information posted that we know is of relevance to issues many people in the Niagara area have been raising questions and concerns about in recent times.
That information includes the following statements, made by Niagara area MPPs Cindy Forster and Jim Bradley in the Ontario legislature this past December 7th, on continued controversies surrounding the current management of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority and around plans by a China-based corporation to move forward with urban development on a portion of close to 500 acres of significant green lands in Niagara Falls known as Thundering Waters Forest.
Here are those statements with more of issues of interest and concern to our readers coming later.)
From the floor of the Ontario legislature, Wednesday, December y6th, 2017 –
Ms. Cindy Forster: It’s a pleasure to rise to speak a little bit to Bill 139 (the Building Better Communities and Conserving Watersheds Act). I’m happy that the minister (Kathryn McGarry) from MNR (Ministry of Natural Resources) is here and that our member from St. Catharines is here as well, as he had a few minutes yesterday to speak on this bill, An Act to enact the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal Act, 2017 and the Local Planning Appeal Support Centre Act, 2017 and to amend the Planning Act, the Conservation Authorities Act and various other Acts.
I’m going to keep my comments to the conservation part of the bill. I want to spend my time speaking to the amended legislation, to the conservation act, and perhaps some of its application to conservation authorities, particularly in the Niagara area, having been involved with this file for the last four or five years.
I want to start, though, by talking a bit about the Thundering Waters project. I’m going to quote a bit from a CBC News Kelly Bennett post back in August. Last summer, activists in Niagara Falls were camping in Thundering Waters, “sharing a habitat with the blue spotted salamanders and black gum trees.” They’re concerned about these being threatened by a proposed development called Paradise. They’re in this 484-acre park near Marineland and it has a mix of habitats, landscapes, Carolinian forest, swamplands, grasslands, a savannah section and 95 hectares of provincially significant wetlands.
To the government’s credit, they haven’t moved off their provincial policy statements with respect to provincially protected wetlands. I can tell you that you the activists and the people who actually care about our ecosystem and the environment are happy about that. But there are still lots of reports and investigations and studies going on. This project has been in the works for almost two years.
The activists are worried that even though some of the lands will be protected, it may actually box in the species that have flourished in this 484-hectare piece of property.
The article also spoke to Hamilton joining a call for the province to investigate the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority. And as recently as last Monday, I believe it was, the city of Port Colborne had a council meeting where there were many activists out also calling on the government once again to appoint a supervisor, even though we are in third reading of this bill.
Certainly, New Democrats put forward a proposal to have a supervisor—language—appointed in those rare occasions that we need one, like we do in hospitals and schools and other agencies. Unfortunately, the government didn’t see fit to include that. I’m sure that over the coming months, there will be other municipalities supporting Port Colborne’s call for a supervisor.
The activists say that local politicians, they believe, have not been as transparent as they could have been.
The Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority recommended a process called biodiversity offsetting. The government, at one point, in a white paper, had asked for comments from conservation authorities across the province. The NPCA bit on that ask and wanted to try and use this 484-hectare parcel as an area where they could do a pilot on biodiversity offsetting, but environmentalists have decried that issue and, so far, the attention has only resulted in the province designating more wetlands within this parcel. And that’s good news.
The conflict there has pitted local activists and local politicians, and our local conservation authority as well. That has led to a lot of controversy around our conservation authority in Niagara: Are you in the development business or are you in the conservation business? That has led to numerous freedom-of-information requests through that agency.
I heard yesterday, in a newspaper article, that the requests have gone from five a year to 36 last year, and they’re having difficulty keeping up with those freedom-of-information requests. Many of them are being denied or they’re being, in some cases, redacted, blacked out, and that is problematic, I think, for the people who are trying to get the information they need to try and ante up their lobby efforts on this particular project, and on the NPCA in general.
Back in the day—it was probably a couple of years ago now—the mayor of Niagara Falls asked the Premier (of Ontario) to witness the signing of a memorandum for this Chinese developer to come in and develop this property. The Chinese developer ended up buying that property from Mountainview Homes. They have a significant investment in there now, but they don’t seem to be making much progress with respect to wanting to vary from the current rules on provincially protected wetlands.
I also want to speak to a meeting that happened recently in Niagara Falls. The commenter was John Bacher, who is a veteran conservationist in Niagara and who has worked on the greenbelt review for Sierra Club Canada and others. He was disturbed when he went to this meeting in November, because it was supposed to be an open-forum, public kind of meeting, and when he walked over to the display board in this room that was showing this proposed development for the community and he started to talk about the wetlands, he heard a male voice in the back of the room telling him to stop talking, and he was ordered to leave this public meeting by a security officer.
Thankfully, Carolynn Ioannoni, a Niagara Falls councillor, was in the room at the time, and she was able to convince the security guard that Mr. Bacher should be allowed to stay at the meeting and that it was a public forum. He stayed quiet for the rest of the night.
But he was concerned that in fact there are eight parcels of various wetlands that are recommended for elimination under an amendment, through the official plan, at the city, and that the development is proposed to be on about 120 acres.
He went on to say that this “Wetland 10 is proposed to be cut across for a road” and that it would link the proposed riverfront community to the Chippewa Parkway. He said that the planning group’s “justification report” made it clear that “it is their view that the provincial government erred in protecting the eight wetlands” which the amendment seeks to eliminate, and that “it disparages the eight wetlands as ‘fragments’ whose protected status ‘should be removed’” by MNRF.
Under wetlands policy, it’s legally possible to down-rate wetlands in response to species loss, but the studies so far have shown that the species are all thriving in numbers, so it wouldn’t really meet the criteria to do that down-rating.
I just wanted to put some context to what has been going on with respect to Thundering Waters. The NPCA even went as far as to hire a lobbyist to go out and lobby the government for this development.
Just recently, the new CAO of the NPCA, Mark Brickell, I think his name is, was applauding a local MPP for supporting their One Million Trees initiative. This came out of a kickoff party that they had a couple of months ago. He’s asking the other area MPPs, such as myself and the member from St. Catharines, and perhaps the member from Niagara West–Glanbrook to get onside and support this initiative.
While we all support the planting of more trees, I would just respond that, in fact, when they had their kickoff back in September, I believe it was, and I went online to get an invite to go to the party, I was issued a ticket to attend the party, but the next morning, I had a call from the NPCA telling me that I wasn’t welcome to attend their kickoff party to talk about their $1-million tree planting—I wasn’t welcome; it was only for friends and family, of which I was neither—and I wasn’t welcome to attend, even though the event was being paid for on the taxpayers’ dime.
So I would say to the member for St. Catharines that they’re really not interested in us coming on board to support anything that they do.
The member yesterday talked about Bill Hodgson, a well-respected regional councillor and a former mayor of Lincoln, who was censured by this Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority board a few months ago because he dared to speak out about plans for a financial audit, calling for the Auditor General to come in and do an audit. At the end of the day, he was censured.
Just this week, in our local papers, Mr. Hodgson is quoted having talked to the local press to say that he has been trying to get the Gowling report. That was the law firm that was representing Mr. Hodgson when he was censured. He was trying, through an FOI, to get that report. The NPCA is refusing to give him the report that led to his censure. Eventually, he resigned from that board.
Mr. (Mark) Brickell, who is the new CAO, is quoted at the (Niagara regional government’s) finance committee meeting at the region this week as saying, “We’re developing a strategy to reach out to even the most disenchanted members of our community.” At the same time that he is saying this, they are denying Mr. Hodgson the right to see the report that censured him and led to his resignation. Right after they said that, four of the board members who also sit on the finance committee at the region—they are board members at the NPCA, and they sit on the finance committee—voted against allowing Ed Smith to make a presentation. I see this as kind of like a Peyton Place saga. It’s this week’s drama.
Ed had asked to get on the agenda of the finance committee. He asked to speak to the budget process of the NPCA. Their budget was on the agenda for the region, and he asked to have the right to speak to it, in light of the fact that they had sued him and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayers’ money suing him, as well as suing a former employee—and the legal costs that will go along with that, and perhaps the personal legal costs of other people who may have been involved.
They had his presentation in advance. They never told him not to appear. But he showed up at the meeting, and then they said, “Oh, no, you can’t speak. We don’t like your presentation. You need to change your presentation and then we will consider letting you speak.” He said that he wasn’t prepared to change his presentation. In fact, he had just had a lawsuit decision several weeks ago that said that as taxpayers, as citizens in our community, we have the right to ask questions, we have the right to make comments and we have the right to elicit answers from our elected officials.
They sued him. Superior Court judge Ramsay—very well respected—gave a scathing decision on the NPCA. Still he arrives at this regional council meeting to make a representation on the new budget of the NPCA, and he is denied the right to make that presentation. The communication isn’t improving. That strategy isn’t working, so I would say that you need to get yourself a new strategy.
All that people really want in Niagara—and I think all of you will agree, probably in any of your ridings—is transparency. They want accountability, they want integrity and they want trust when people are spending their tax dollars and developing programs or services in the community. Unfortunately, they are not getting that in this agency.
We’ve talked about this a lot. Certainly at the committee level I tried to address some of those issues by the appointment of a supervisor. I raised the issues, as did the member from St. Catharines, about appointments to jobs when you were sitting as a board member, and all you have to do is take a leave of absence and then you are appointed to the top jobs with the agency that you’re supposed to be the watchdog on. You end up with the top job as the CAO or the director of operations.
There is something wrong with that when those kinds of things happen. That’s what we used to call the old boys’ club. I think it’s still alive and well.
Mr. James J. Bradley: It’s cronyism.
Ms. Cindy Forster: Cronyism. Yes, maybe cronyism. It’s still alive and well there.
I raise these issues because I think that through the process of amending the conservation act—which hasn’t been amended for quite some time—we could have addressed some of these issues. I even went so far as to put an amendment in that would have seen—if I’m a city employee and I run for city councillor in that city, I then have to resign my position as a city employee.
I even went as far as to try to make a stretch that if you are an employee of the conservation authority, because you are getting provincial dollars, regional dollars and local municipal dollars, if you run for a regional council seat, you then should have to give up your position, where it’s basically all publicly funded dollars. But that was a bit of a stretch—I get it—because you’re not an employee of the local municipality providing those funds, or of the province. But it is problematic when we, as legislators, have to go to that length to try to address some of these issues.
I know that the member from Lanark–Frontenac–Lennox and Addington yesterday talked about the amendments to the conservation act being all about Niagara. Well, I can assure you that they’re not. I sat through a couple of days of those amendments, and many of the amendments address issues across this entire province. They’re not just about the Niagara Peninsula.
We need to find a way to continue to address these concerns. That is why I continue to raise the issues here in the Legislature and locally in our newspaper, because people are very concerned.
I go back to this Thundering Waters project. This is just one of the land issues that have been of concern over the four or five years that I’ve been closely following the NPCA with respect to property issues in the Niagara Peninsula.
There have been other property issues in other parts of my riding, as I’m sure there have been in other parts of the peninsula, that just didn’t pass that test. Even in this case, Mountainview Homes held onto that property for probably 20 years in Niagara Falls, and now it is being sold for a huge amount of money, with promises to a developer that probably are not going to be able to be achieved. I just hope that the MNR sticks to their guns and makes sure that we protect this one of, I think, only two pieces of forest and wetlands that actually remain in that part of the peninsula.
The Acting Speaker (Mr. Paul Miller): Questions and comments?
Mr. James J. Bradley: I want to commend the member for once again sharing with the Legislature and the audience that may be watching her concerns and the concerns that both she and I have received from constituents in the Niagara area about things that are happening at the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority.
Certainly, the freedom-of-information requests that have been out there are ones that should be responded to in a very positive fashion, including that of Ed Smith, who has been a crusader in this regard—just an average citizen who decided to take upon himself the issues that are confronting the authority.
As the member has mentioned, what essentially has happened is that people who are pro-development have been taking over the leadership of the authority, and those who are more environmentally inclined have been given the pink slip to head out the door, and have been silenced as well with agreements that compel them not to say anything about it. I want to commend the member for that.
She mentions John Bacher, who is an excellent environmentalist. He has run against me as a New Democratic Party candidate—a very good candidate. He has been the heart and soul, along with Gracia Janes in recent years, of the Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society.
She mentions Bill Hodgson, who was bullied off the board. I hope Bill will run for office once again, if he doesn’t get bullied out of the field of politics by the bullies who have been attempting to do that to him.
The member herself has been the victim of reprisals and intimidation and bullying, even to the point where they tried to attribute to her something she had nothing to do with. They brought it to regional council. It was a resolution that had nothing to do with the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority. They thought they could embarrass her; they thought they could silence her. They have not done so, and we see an example of that again this afternoon.
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