It Could Be The Most Disturbing Report Yet On the State of Governance In Our Niagara Region
A News Commentary by Niagara At Large reporter and publisher Doug Draper
Posted July 26th, 2018 on Niagara At Large
Niagara, Ontario – When I arrived at the Ball’s Falls Centre for Conservation this July 25th for the monthly Board of Directors meeting of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA), wouldn’t you know it.
The glass doors to the meeting room were shut and papered over as has so often been the case in recent years when members of the public have gone to all the time and trouble on a weekday morning to drive through the back roads on Lincoln to attend these meetings.
There isn’t much one can do to take advantage of the NPCA’s munch flaunted policy of openness and transparency when the doors to the meeting room are papered over, so being the annoying reporter that I am, I walked down a corridor to another set of doors that weren’t papered over and that led to a gallery area in the meeting room.
At that point, the NPCA’s current chief administrative officer (CAO), Mark Brickell, followed me down the corridor and told me, as politely as he could, that I could not stand anywhere near those doors because the board was having a closed session inside with Ontario’s Auditor General, Bonnie Lysyk, and several members of her investigative team.
“Alright Mark, so how are you doing?” I asked him. “Okay,” he replied. “These are funny times.”
“These are funny times, alright,” was my response to him as I made my way back to the front lobby of the building to wait for Lysyk and her team to emerge.
In fact, these are far from funny times at all for the NPCA and for many others that have anything to do with this once highly venerated – going back for most of its more than half-a-century long history – Conservation Authority.
For more than half a year now, Lysyk, who runs as independent office of provincial government, with a reputation for being fair, but for also being tough, fearless and thorough, has been inside the NPCA’s offices for more several months now, combing through records going back more than five years, interviewing past and present employees, and several others across the region who have had dealings with the Authority.
Lysyk and her investigators have been looking at everything from the way the NPCA has been spending millions of dollars of our tax money, its letting of contracts to private parties, its hiring and firing practices, and allegations raised by an Ontario sector union representing some of the NPCA’s employees and by others of workplace harassment.
And from a number of guarded sources this reporter has talked to in recent months, Lysyk and her team are doing a very thorough job. indeed – which probably explains why they were behind closed doors with the NPCA’s board for the better part of three hours this July 25th – and what they are finding is about the furthest thing from funny as you can get.
What I have been hearing about the gravity of information being harvested in this Auditor General’s Office probe was reinforced by information The St. Catharines Standard’s reporters Bill Sawchuk and Grant LaFleche obtained in at least one document they wrote about in a story featured this July 26th on the front page of the newspaper.
That document reportedly identifies more than $1.5 million in contracts (contracts paid for with our tax money), “many of which have incomplete or missing paperwork,” according to the newspaper story.
“Among the 40 items the provincial agency is investigating is $41,226 paid to Carmen D’Angelo,” the Standard story continues.
If the name of Carmen D’Angelo by now sounds familiar to many of you, it should. He was the CAO of the NPCA before a majority on Niagara’s regional council voted in late October of 2016 in favour of a three-year contract making him Niagara Region’s CAO for an annual salary of about $250,000 plus a whole host of be benefits that go with what is arguably the most important job in municipal governance in our region.
Reading through the July 25th Standard story, one who has following this whole saga closely can come across cost figures and information about practices inside the NPCA over the past five or six years that match pretty damn closely to what one Niagara citizen, Ed Smith, found almost single handily and listed in a document he circulated two years ago, when regional councillors were getting ready to vote on giving the CAO contract at the Region to D’Angelo.
Smith, a retired Canadian Armed Forces officer living in St. Catharines drew lawsuits from the NPCA and D’Angelo following the circulation of his document – lawsuits that were dismissed last year by an Ontario Court Judge who also ordered the NPCA to cover more than $130,000 of Smith’s legal costs.
Carmen D’Angelo and Niagara’s regional government are already in hot water over recent questions whirling around D’Angelo’s hiring as CAO and whether or not anything about the hiring process was tainted.
They are also both catching at least some public wrath over the findings in a recently released Ontario Ombudsman’s report around the Region’s illegal seizure this past December of notes and computers that belonged to Standard reporter Bill Sawchuk and Niagara citizen blogger Preston Haskell, before they were thrown out of Niagara’s regional headquarters.
A regional council meeting on the contents of the Ombudsman’s report is scheduled to begin at 4:30 p.m. this Thursday, July 26th at the regional headquarters. And given a growing number of calls for the resignations of Carmen D’Angelo and the Region’s chair Al Caslin, it promises to be a hot one.
As disturbing as everything we already know and still want to know about the CAO hiring business and the seizure and expulsion of reporters and their belongings still are, there is a lot of reason to believe that when the Auditor General releases her final report sometime in the days or weeks to come, it will reveal some of the most shocking information yet about municipal governance in this Niagara region.
The question the rest of us who live here have to ask is how much more of this awful stuff are we going to take?
We have people in Niagara – young and not so young – who need good-paying jobs and affordable housing. We could use a far better public transit system and better growth plans for our communities that does not threaten or destroy more of our foodlands and other green places.
And we need to rebuild a culture in our municipal government offices that attract good people on our councils and on teams of staff people we need to run our public infrastructure and other needed services.
This bad clown show and circus – especially at our regional level of government – has got to end as soon as possible.
We have municipal elections in Niagara this coming October 22nd. Get informed and engaged and make damn sure as many of us as possible get out and vote for positive change.
There is nothing less than a healthy and prosperous future for our region and all who live here at stake.
To read the St. Catharines Standard’s July 25th story on the Ontario Auditor’s probe of Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA) operations, click on – https://www.stcatharinesstandard.ca/news-story/8760454-auditor-general-red-flags-1-5m-in-npca-contracts/ .
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