Niagara Regional Government Receives National Journalists’ Award for Efforts to Withhold Information from Public

Caslin and Company at Niagara Region Win Canadian Journalists’ “Code of Silence Award for           Outstanding Achievement in Government Secrecy’

A News Commentary by Doug Draper

Posted October 15th, 2018 on Niagara At Large

Caslin circus wins national award!

Niagara, Ontario – Niagara’s regional government received a national award this Monday, October 15 and not one of those still in power at the Region – not the Region’s Chair Al Caslin or CAO Carmen D’Angelo or any of their stand-ins – showed up for the presentation.

That’s no surprise though, since this particular award, presented each year by the Canadian Association of Journalists, News Media Canada, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and Ryerson University-based Centre for Free Expression (CFE), is not the kind any self-respecting municipal leaders would want in a news release – just days away from municipal elections that could very well see quite a few on this regional council swept out of office.

James Turk, director of Ryerson University’s Centre for Free Expression’. with ‘Code of Silence’ Award given to Niagara’s regional council by Canadian journalists associations.

The award, given by the four, Canada-wide press-advocacy groups, is called the “Code of Silence Award for Outstanding Achievement in Government Secrecy” in the category of municipal government.

James Turk, director of the Centre for Freedom and 15th, a distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, made the award announcement at a press conference in downtown St. Catharines this October 15th, said the award’s purpose “is to call public attention to government departments and agencies that put extra effort into denying public access to government information to which the public has a right under access to information explanation.”

In that spirit, a citation, inscribed on the award Turk said the Canadian groups will attempt to send to the regional government reads as follows –

“Regional Municipality of Niagara wins the 2018 Code of silence Award for Outstanding Achievement in Government Secrecy for delaying or denying FOI (freedom of information) requests and forcing lengthy and expensive appeal processes, as well as refusing to communicate with local media on issues of public interest,”

“Extensive coverage by Grant Lafleche, a reporter for the St. Catharines newspaper The Standard,” continues the citation, “exposes secrecy around council members’ expenses and refusals to speak on high profile public issues, as well as requests from several council members to fire The Standard’s management and replace them with those more compliant with Regional Municipality of Niagara’s wants.”

“This past year,” the citation concludes,” has seen Regional Municipality of Niagara as the subject of two Ontario Ombudsman investigations: the first, for an unlawful seizure of a reporter’s notes at a council meeting, and most recently, suspicions of a tainted hiring process for a high-paying chief administrative officer job.”

The four Canadian journalism groups receive nominations for the award each year from citizens across the country and the winner is chosen by an awards jury for the groups.

In this case, the groups received nominations for Niagara’s regional government from a citizens organization in the region called A Better Niagara, which is now working to encourage fellow citizens across Niagara to vote for “positive change” in the coming October 22nd municipal elections.

Ed Smith, a St. Catharines resident and retired Canadian Armed Forces officer, has spent more than two year trying to get information out of Niagara’s regional council and the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority and, among other things, was forced to fight off a lawsuit to do it.

In a statement Ed Smith, a St. Catharines citizen and community activist, and a director of A Better Niagara, posted on behalf of the organization this October 15th, he noted that “it’s a national award so that means Niagara Region beat our other nominees from across the country for this award of shame.”

“A Better Niagara nominated both the Region and the Niagara Peninsula Conservation authority for this award, and since the majority of the members on the NPCA board are Regional Mayors and Councillors, I guess you could say both groups won.” added Smith, who won a lawsuit the NPCA launched against last year after he attempted to make public questionable conduct by the NPCA and its board. “Unfortunately, the citizens of Niagara are the losers.”

Following Turk’s announcement of the award, Smith stressed that the Region’s government and those on the regional council who sit on the NPCA’s board certainly deserve it.

This veteran journalist agrees.

In the almost 40 years, I have worked as a reporter in Niagara, first for The St. Catharines Standard, then for other media outlets, the level of contempt for the media expressed by Caslin and a number of his fellow travellers on the Region’s council has been unprecedented, and reminiscent of the Stalin-like charges that the press is the “enemy of the people” coming out of Trump in recent times.

One of the most outrageous – and unconstitutional – expressions of this attitude surfaced in December of 2017 when Caslin, CAO Carmen D’Angelo and others participated in seizing Standard reporter Bill Sawchuk’s computer and notes, before ordering him out of the Niagara regional headquarters for what turned out to be completely unfounded charges that he may have been secretly recording a closed session of council.

St. Catharines Standard reporter Bill Sawchuk being ordered to leave Niagara’s regional headquarters last December after he was wrongly accused of using his computer to record a closed session of council. File photo by Emily Beth Spanton.

Two years earlier, in March of 2015, Caslin and D’Angelo (who was still CAO at the NPCA at the time) and others signed a memo, complaining to the Standard’s then corporate owner, Postmedia, about the newspaper’s coverage of municipal affairs.

Among other things, the memo charged that “there have been many instances … of anti-conservative writing, specifically targeting elected officials who are fiscal conservatives.” An email D’Angelo sent out during the same period of time asked owners of The Standard to replace the newspaper’s managers.

In all due respect to the reporters at The Standard, any charge that the newspaper was making a concerted effort to go after politicians of a conservative bent, particular during the years the it was owned by the decidedly conservative Postmedia corporation, is laughable, to say the least, and says far more about the those paranoia of those who signed the memo and the level of contempt they hold for the constitutional role that media plays in a free and open democracy.

With only days to go before people across Niagara go to the polls, I believe it is important to name those who signed that memo and are running for another term of municipal office.

Here were some of the municipal candidates from across Niagara who showed up for the annoncement of the award to Niagara Region. From left is Kelly Edgar, the only regional councillor to show up, and one who is running for another term in St. Catharines and who spent the last four years fighting the secrecy. Second from left is Vicki-Lynne Smith, running for a St. Catharines city council seat in Ward 3, Emily Beth Spanton and Haley Bateman, running for regional council seats in St. Catharines, and from Grimsby, Jeff Jordan who is running for mayor of that town, and Wayne Fertich, who is running against Tony Quirk (another one that has got to go) for Grimsby’s one and only directly elected regional council seat. ALL OF THESE CANDIDATES HAVE RECEIVED THE ENDORSEMENT OF ‘A Better Niagara’, a region-wide citizens coalition working for better governance in these municipal elections.

Niagara Region’s CAO Carmen d’Angelo, who signed a memo critical of The St. Catharines Standard’s reporting, now finds himself facing an Ontario Ombudsman’s investigation over the process used to hire him at the region – an investigation triggered by information dug up by The Standard.

Along with D’Angelo, whose 2016 hiring at the Region is now the subject of an Ontario Ombudsman’s Office investigation, others who signed the memo include: Caslin is once again running in St. Catharines for a seat on the regional council; Sandie Bellows and Mike Britton, two St. Catharines city councillors now running for seats on regional council; St. Catharines city councillor Sal Sorrento; St. Catharines Mayor Walter Sendzik; Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodatti and Niagara Falls regional councillor Selina Volpatti; West Lincoln Mayor Doug Joyner; and Thorold Mayor Ted Luciani, who is now running for a regional council seat in his municipality.

Those who signed the memo and are not now running for public office include Port Colborne regional councillor David Barrick, Niagara Falls regional councillor Bart Maves and former St. Catharines federal Tory MP Rick Dykstra.

Before you go to the polls this Monday, October 22nd, ask yourself if you want people who have a problem with public scrutiny sitting on your local or regional council.

Niagara At Large is posting images of the two-page memo below –

For more information on the Centre for free Expression at Ryerson University, visit: https://www.cfe.ryerson.ca/

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 “A politician thinks of the next election. A leader thinks of the next generation.” – Bernie Sanders

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