How Many Times Do They Have To Tell You That!
A Brief News Commentary by Niagara At Large reporter and publisher Doug Draper
Posted March 1st, 2018 on Niagara At Large
“We’ve made a commitment to being the most transparent Conservation Authority in the province, and it’s something we’re working towards every day.”- from a recently released statement by Sandy Annunziata , a Fort Erie regional councillor and the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority’s board chair, on behalf of the NPCA’s board of directors.
“The unsigned document in question (meaning a document circulated in 2016 by Niagara citizen Ed Smith, listing several questions and concerns about the way the NPCA carries out business with our tax dollars) calls for accountability and transparency at the NPCA. The NPCA is leading the province in this area. …We have instituted best practices which value a significant amount of public consultation accompanied by pragmatic customer service.” – from a November, 2017 statement by St. Catharines regional councillor Bruce Timms, a member of NPCA’s board of directors and then-chair of the board.
I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard Annunziata, Timms and others from the ranks of the NPCA’s board and management boasting about what a province-wide champion this body is when it comes to being open and accountable to the public.
They have often made this pitch in from of local municipal councils about to vote on a motion calling for a full, forensic audit of the NPCA’s operations because, increasingly enough, at least some members of those councils don’t believe the NPCA has been open and accountable enough.
One of the most quoted lines from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet reads like this, and I paraphrase: “Thou doth protest too much.”
For my purposes here, it means that if you have to keep talking about how open and accountable you are, maybe there is some cause for so many people questioning whether you are really all that open and accountable.
That brings me back to the NPCA and the experience Niagara area citizens like Ed Smith have had trying to obtain even the most straight-forward, factual information out of that body around contracts that have been awarded or other expenditures of the money they receive each year through our municipal taxes.
Far too often, a request for information from Smith or some other citizen, or from a member of the media or even a provincial member of parliament is met with someone at the NPCA directing them to apply for the information through Ontario’s Freedom of Information Act – a piece of legislation that, as I recall when it first came in to effect in the late 1980s, was never intended to be used obsessively as a way to discourage people from asking for information or to delay from getting it.
Yet, at the NPCA the province’s freedom of information legislation has become one of the tools of first choice that NPCA flaks reach for when citizens come knocking on their door with questions about how their tax dollars are being spent.
I have followed the saga of citizens like Ed Smith, who have sometimes had to reach into their pockets and spend hundreds of dollars of their own money, after being made to go through the freedom of information (FOI) process just to find out, for example, what a contract that the NPCA board awarded to a consultant that may be worth tens of thousands of dollars is all about.
There was a time that this reporter or any Niagara citizen, for that matter, could call up the NPCA and get a representative like Mary Stack (who was let go about a year or so ago) on the phone and simply ask her about something like that and if she didn’t have the answers in front of her, she would get back with them within a few hours. Often, she would also invite you to get together out in the field with the people doing the work, so you could see the work in action, and report on it for the pubic if you wished.
But that was back in the days when the NPCA still had CAOs like Andy Burt and Tony D’Amario and dedicated conservationists like Doug Elliott sitting on the board. It was before the year 2013 when, according to the current board chair Sandy Annunziata, the NPCA had not yet been saved by the characters running it now and was still “an organization in crisis.”
I am but one Niagarian who would take that “organization in crisis” back in an nano-second, and a story by reporter Grant LaFleche, published in this March 1st’s edition of the St. Catharines Standard, chronicles just one of the many reasons why I feel that way. It zeroes right in on the NPCA’s boast that it is a leader in openness and accountability.
“According to documents obtained by The Standard,” begins LaFleche’s piece, “Ontario’s integrity and privacy commissioner’s office has issued rulings compelling NPCA to search for or release documents the authority had said it didn’t have, couldn’t release or partially released.”
“Adjudicators for the IPC,” the story continues, “have also rejected several reasons NPCA gave for not searching for or releasing documents and criticized the authority for presenting shifting reasons for denying Smith’s requests. … The documents also show NPCA has, in at least one circumstance, hired the law firm of Gowling WLG to fight appeals of NPCA decisions filed to the IPC by Smith.”
That is just a taste of the story, and I will provide a link below to The St. Catharines Standard website so that you can read the rest and come to your own conclusion about how open and accountable to the tax payers of Niagara this body is.
Just before I do, Grant LaFleche ends his story with the following – “NPCA has not responded to interview requests on several issues in recent months, including the suit against Smith and the related costs. On Wednesday (February 28th), The Standard asked NPCA if it has adopted a policy of not responding to inquiries from the paper. The authority did not reply to that question.”
And I’d be surprised if they ever do.
A year ago this winter, I had encounter in the lobby of the Ball’s Falls Centre for Conservation, where the NPCA’s board of directors was in closed session with a communications representative for the agency who came out of the meeting to ask us to quiet down so as not to disturb the meeting.
I took the opportunity to ask him why a list of questions I had recently sent to the NPCA had not received any response at all. His reply to me was that, I would not write a positive story about the NPCA anyway so why bother answering my questions.
Seems like kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy at work to me. Then they wonder why so many Niagara citizens are pleased to know that a team of investigators from the Ontario Auditor General’s office is in their Welland headquarters right now with an aim to getting to the bottom of what all has been going on in there.
Now here is the link to St. Catharines Standard reporter Grant LaFleche’s story – https://www.stcatharinesstandard.ca/news-story/8291010-smith-npca-in-dispute-over-documents/
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