Ontario Ombudsman Calls Niagara Region’s Seizure Of Standard Reporter’s Computer, Notes, Expulsion From Municipal Property “Contrary To Law, Unreasonable, Unjust And Wrong.”
“I also found that the Regional Municipality of Niagara acted unreasonably and without due care when it ejected a citizen blogger (Preston Haskell) from the council meeting on December 7, 2017, and seized his digital recording device.” – from the report of Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé, released this July 18th, 2018
A News Commentary by Doug Draper
Posted July 18th, 2018 on Niagara At Large
Before I get started, let me say this.
As a journalist who has closely followed regional government in Niagara for decades, and who once upon a time worked in communications for the regional government, it is impossible to imagine anything close to what I am about to highlight below happening under the leadership of any one of the past Niagara regional chairs, Brian Merritt, Peter Partington, Debbie Zimmerman or Gary Burroughs.
Or we could go all the way back to the creation of regional government in 1970 and Niagara’s first regional chair, John Campbell.
Would the late John Campbell or any of the others who have had the privilege to serve as Niagara’s regional chair have anything to do with seizing a newspaper reporter’s computer and notes, then ordering that reporter off municipal property?
Impossible! It just wouldn’t happen!
It takes a special cast of characters to cook up the cauldron of contemptible conduct that is detailed in a 60-page report released this July 18th, 2018 by Ontario’s Ombudsman and chief public sector watchdog, Paul Dubé.
“My investigation confirmed that the Regional Municipality of Niagara acted unreasonably, wrongly, and without legal justification when it expelled a journalist (St. Catharines Standard reporter Bill Sawchuk) from municipal property and seized his personal property during a council meeting on December 7, 2017,” reads one of the many findings in Dubé ‘s report.
“I also found that the Regional Municipality of Niagara acted unreasonably and without due care when it ejected a citizen blogger (Preston Haskell) from the council meeting on December 7, 2017, and seized his digital recording device,” continues the Ombudsman’s much anticipated report on the outrageous events that unfolded inside Niagara Region’s headquarters – what should be the people’s house – during the last council meeting of last year.
This report – a product of months of work by a team of Ombudsman office investigators – documents one of the darkest episodes in an already dark, divisive and dysfunctional term of Niagara regional government.
Should we be proud of the regional government we’ve got? And if not, what are we going to do about it, Niagara?
Well for one thing, we have municipal elections this coming October, and one of the first in the current cast of characters that we should use our votes to is Al Caslin, who recently announced his desire to win a second term as chair of Niagara’s regional council. But more on voting him out of office later.
Let’s get back to that cauldron of contemptible conduct that unfolded on the night of December 7th when Niagara’s regional council went into closed session to discuss what else? Yet another report involving a breach of the Region’s code of conduct rules by one of its own council members.
While numerous members of the public, including this reporter, St. Catharines Standard reporter Bill Sawchuk and Niagara area citizen and blogger Preston Haskell, were waiting in the lobby of the regional headquarters while the council was in closed meeting, we learned that Sawchuk’s computer and notes, which he left at the media table in the council chambers, had been seized by regional officials, and so had Haskell’s recording device.
Then one after another, Sawchuk and Haskell where approached by regional staff and ordered to leave the headquarters while their equipment and notes remained in custody.
I watched with others in the lobby as Sawchuk was approached by a bald guy in a suit who looked a bit like a plain clothes cop or a bouncer – he turned out to be the regional government’s general manager Chris Carter – and two uniformed Niagara Regional Police officers. Within minutes, he was leaving the building under their watchful eyes.
All many of us who were there heard at the time was that one or both of them were being accused of deliberately leaving their devices behind in the council chambers to record the closed meeting – an accusation that both men vehemently denied, and accusations Ombudsman office investigators found not one wit of evidence to support.
Within days of this outrageous episode, Ontario’s Ombudsman received a total of 11 separate complaints from individuals in Niagara calling for an investigation that Dubé wasted no time launching.
I urge each and every one of you to click on the following link – https://www.ombudsman.on.ca/Media/ombudsman/ombudsman/resources/Reports-on-Investigations/PressPauseFinal-ENJuly2018.pdf – and review the Ombudsman’s highly-readable report, titled ‘Press Pause’, on what arguably is one of the most disgraceful episodes in the 48-year history of regional government in Niagara.
I don’t believe that anyone should go to the polls in the municipal elections this coming October 22nd, before they read this report about (to borrow a term Fort Erie regional councillor Sandy Annunziata reportedly used when he claimed he found Haskell’s recording device hidden under a hat and running) the “political skullduggery” that occurred that evening of December 7th, and the roles that key figures like Caslin and the Region’s CAO, Carmen D’Angelo, played in it.
As you read through the Ombudsman’s report, also take note of the role that the lawyer or the “external counsel”
“Many of the external counsel’s assertions,” wrote the Ombudsman at one point in his report, “betrayed what I can only describe as a disturbing lack of understanding of my Office and its authority.”
In the final pages of the report, the Ombudsman noted that the regional government, through its “external counsel”, turning down an opportunity to respond to the findings and recommendations in his report before its public release.
“This is frankly baffling,” he writes in his report. “It is a standard expectation that a public sector body provided with recommendations from an independent oversight body would address them. Not only was this explained to them in writing, but a review of any of my Office’s investigative reports would have made this expectation clear to the Region and its external counsel.”
In a related comment quoted in The St. Catharines Standard this July 19th, Dubé also had this to say; “I’ve never seen somebody refuse to respond to the recommendations and say, ‘We’re not going to respond, and this is not the time.’ …. We’re kind of stunned, and it’s unfortunate because I’d like to know how the council is going to respond, but I think ratepayers are entitled to know as well how council is going to respond to this.”
Well, join the club Mr. Dubé because many of us have been stunned again and again over the over the conduct of this Caslin-led regional government and – quite frankly – at the cowardice of far too many regional councillors when times come to stand up to Caslin’s cabal and speak out on the ratepayers’ behalf.
Perhaps some councillors could start by demanding to know how much of our tax money went to paying for that external counsel.
Some of them might also work up the courage to declare that the public apology the Ombudsman recommends the regional government make to Standard reporter Bill Sawchuk and blogger Preston Haskell are not enough.
What went down on the evening of December 7th was not only unwarranted and illegal. In the case of the newspaper reporter in particular, it was an assault on the constitutional rights and freedoms of a member of the news media to play their watchdog role in a democracy on behalf of the people.
That makes it an assault on all of us and for that, heads should roll at Niagara Region and one would hope that a large media organization like Torstar, the chain that owns The St. Catharines Standard, would use some of its resources, on behalf of its reporters and on behalf of press freedom for all of us, to pursue charges against those at the Region who played lead roles in this assault.
In a statement St. Catharines Standard editor-in-chief Angus Scott issued following the release of the Ombudsman’s report, he made reference to the efforts the regional government and its counsel made to question the Ombudsman’s Office’s authority and efforts to offer recommendations to prevent anything like this from happening again.
“The Region still doesn’t seem to recognize the seriousness of its infractions,” Scott concluded.
That’s all the more reason why regional councillors and citizens across Niagara should demand that heads roll over this and that ways be explored to have the ring-leaders charged.
This is also one disgusting episode that all voters should keep in mind when they cast their ballots in the October 22nd municipal elections.
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