“We are desperate to have some action on this (Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority) front. … All four (Niagara, Ontario area) MPPs have expressed concern about the Conservation Authority, so that’s why I’ll be supporting this.” – St. Catharines city councillor Bruce Williamson
A News Commentary by Doug Draper
Posted December 20th, 2017 on Niagara At Large
Niagara, Ontario – After disappointing many citizens across the Niagara region last October by putting the matter on hold, St. Catharines’ city council has finally supported a motion to call on Ontario’s Wynne government to appoint a special supervisor to both clean house at and clean up a Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority that has lost a good deal of public trust in recent years.
A motion to call for a special supervisor – similar in spirit to one put forward this past October by St. Catharines city councillor Bruce Williamson – was tabled at the city council’s December 18th meeting by another city councillor Jennie Stevens.
The motion also reads that is a supervisor is not appointed by the Ontario government within 60 days, the NPCA’s current board of directors – many of them members of and appointed by the Al Caslin cabal dominating Niagara’s regional council – “be dissolved and be replaced by directors appointed by the members of the lower tier municipalities, based on skill set, not politics or political ties, and that Niagara Region develop the process with stakeholders, to be in place after 2018 Municipal Election.”
Stevens’ December 18th motion follows a motion passed by Port Colborne city council this November, calling for a supervisor to take charge of the NPCA, and a more recent one, tabled by St. Catharines city councillor Joe Kushner and passed by a majority on the council, demanding that the NPCA disclose how much its failed lawsuits against St. Catharines citizen and NPCA critic Ed Smith cost taxpayers across the region.
St. Catharines council’s approval of Stevens’ motion also runs parallel with a pledge Cindy Forster, the Niagara area MPP for the Riding of Welland, has made to table an amendment in the provincial legislature early in 2018 to legislation to ensure the powers are there for the Ontario government to bring in a supervisor where there is reason to believe a Conservation Authority has gone off the rails.
Growing numbers of Niagara residents, Niagara area MPPs and local municipalities have raising a host of questions and concerns in recent years over the current NPCA board and management when it comes to the hiring and firing of staff, the awarding of contracts to private consultants, land transactions and other matters around the spending of millions of the public’s tax dollars.
Yet when those concerns have been taken to the provincial government’s Kathryn McGarry, whose Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry has some jurisdiction over the more than 30 Conservation Authorities operating across the province, she has typically responded that the Ontario Conservation Act, as currently written, does not give her the powers to bring in a supervisor or to address the concerns in any other way.
If and when Niagara area MPP Cindy Forster follows through with her private members motion to amend the Conservation Act, we, the people, will get an opportunity to find out how much McGarry and Premier Kathleen Wynne’s government care about concerns many Niagara residents have that the historic conservation mission of the NPCA has been seriously corrupted.
In the meantime, another St. Catharines city councillor, Carlos Garcia, won support from his council colleagues for a call on the NPCA to address what he believes was misinformation the council received this past October when he asked its board chair, Fort Erie regional councillor Sandy Annunziata, why the Conservation Authority didn’t accept an offer from the province’s Auditor General this past winter to do an independent audit of its records.
In response to Garcia’s question, Annunziata said the NPCA did not refuse the offer from the Auditor General, but the St. Catharines councillor sad a transcript of an exchange between NPCA representatives and the Auditor General indicates otherwise.
Many critics of the current NPCA board directors and senior managers suspected at the time that they were doing everything possible to beat off offers and efforts by others to audit its operations.
In the wake of a bid by Bill Hodgson, a Lincoln regional councillor who finally resigned his seat on the NPCA board last spring, to get a third-party, independent audit going, he was censured by the board and publicly called out for committing some serious breaches of the board’s rules, although a report detailing what the board claims Hodgson did wrong has never, despite several requests, been disclosed.
Late this falls, the Office of Ontario’s Auditor General finally announced that it will move ahead on an audit of the NPCA anyway, and work on that audit apparently got underway earlier this December.
Hopefully, the results of the audit will be made public prior to next October’s municipal elections given the fact that a majority of the board members are elected mayors and councillors in Niagara, and another – Port Colborne regional councillor David Barrick – hold a full-time administrative job at the NPCA.
Have these elected municipal councillors and mayors played a role in taking the NPCA to hell in a hand basket, as so many individual residents and others across the region charge, or have they (as they, themselves claim) made the Conservation Authority better than it was before they got on board?
The results of a thorough, independent audit might go a long way toward answering that question, which is why it would be extremely helpful to have them out before voters go to the polls in next October’s municipal elections.
Niagara At Large will have much more in the weeks and months leading up to the October 2018 municipal elections that we believe people across the region need to know before they vote in what may be – for the sake of a Better Niagara and future for our communities – the most important municipal elections in this region in decades.
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