“This ruling is a victory for our democracy and for the people of this region.” – Ed Smith , executive director of A Better Niagara, a citizen’s watchdog group that brought a case for at least 12 NPCA board members for Niagara to court
A News Commentary by Doug Draper, reporter and publisher of Niagara At Large
Posted December 21st, 2018 on Niagara At Large
Saying that the “chaos” at the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority has got to end, an Ontario Superior Court Justice rule in a Welland courtroom this December 21st that the 12 new members Niagara’s Regional Council appointed to the NPCA’s board earlier this month “are members of the board” and the old members “are not.”
“I think that the court has to make some sort of order immediately. The present situation is intolerable,” said Justice James Ramsey in answer to a claim A Better Niagara, a region-wide citizen’s group, filed with court this December 18th, supporting the Regional Council’s appointment of 12 members to the NPCA board and opposing a claim by some members of the past board that Niagara can only have five members.
“The constitutional order”needs to be restored,” added the judge of the questions and concerns swirling around who is responsible for decision-making at the NPCA. “The governance of the Conservation Authority cannot remain in chaos.”
“Niagara Region has 12 constituent lower municipalities (and) it can appoint at least 12 members to the board of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority,” ruled Justice Ramsay before ending this way –
“I declare that as of December 6, 2018 (the date Niagara’s new Regional Council appointed 12 new members from the Council, on an interim basis, to the board), Councillors Chiocchio, Foster, Gibson, Greenwood, Heit, Huson, Insinna, Jordan, Steel, Whalen and Zalepa are members of the board of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority,” said the judge, “and S. Annunziata, B. Baty, F. Campion, P. Darte, M. DiFruscio, P. MacPherson, J. Maloney, T. Quirk and B. Timms are not.”
The Ontario Court’s ruling should finally put an end to several weeks of confusion and claims at least some members of the outgoing NPCA board have been making about when their term ends and how many members Niagara should have on a board that, along with 12 members from the region, has for at least two decades, included two members from Hamilton and one from Haldimand County.
Bruce Timms, one of the outgoing board members and a recently defeated St. Catharines regional councillor who was in the Welland courtroom for the ruling this December 21st, told a newspaper reporter as recently as a few days ago that he was not sure about his current status around board membership and felt “stuck” at least until a new board holds its first meeting.
Asked by a Niagara At Large reporter after Justice Ramsay read his ruling if he accepts the court’s conclusion that he is not on the board now, his response was; “Yes. I am unstuck.”
As for the response from representatives of A Better Niagara; “We couldn’t be happier,” said Liz Benneian, the citizen’s organization’s director. “The judge clearly made a decision based on the (Ontario Conservation) Act that was in alignment with the way we read the Act
Ed Smith, a St. Catharines community activist and the organization’s executive director, said he “felt more elation” than he did late last year when the same judge in the same courtroom ruled against a defamation lawsuit the NPCA slapped on him for raising questions and concerns about the way the Conservation Authority has been doing business with millions of mostly municipal tax dollars.
“This ruling is a victory for our democracy and for the people of this region,” Smith said.
Niagara’s regional government decided shortly after A Better Niagara filed its action this December 18th to join the organization in its bid for a ruling that supported its right to appoint at least 12 members from Niagara to the NPCA board. However, a lawyer for the Region asked the judge for a postponement until the Regional Council holds its next meeting in mid-January and has a chance to further discuss what position to take on the matter.
The judge responded that given chaos enveloping the NPCA, he would rather not put the case off that long. He said he assumes the Region’s position “will inevitably be that its appointments to the board of the Conservation Authority are valid.”
The NPCA did not have a lawyer in the courtroom, but David Barrick, a former Port Colborne regional councillor, who has also worked fulltime as the NPCA’s operations director, stepped forward to ask for a postponement, saying that the Conservation Authority has not had enough time to prepare its arguments. He said he only found out about the citizen’s group’s action a day or two ago through media reports.
“You knew it was coming a few days ago,” said the judge, who added the word “allegedly” in front of a new title – “acting CAO” – that some inside the NPCA have apparently given Barrick over the past few weeks.
According to some recent newspaper reports, at a December 3rd meeting, members of the old board gave powers to former Fort Erie regional councillor Sandy Annunziata and a Hamilton board representative, James Kaspersetz, to carry on as the board’s chair and co-chair, respectively, and to make any future decisions on behalf of the board. One decision they apparently made was to rehire Barrick after Mark Brickell, who up to a few weeks ago was the NPCA’s CAO before he was fired) fired him, then they (possibly Annunziata and Kaspersetz and whoever else) appointed him acting CAO.
After Justice Ramsay made his ruling in favour of the Region’s 12 recent appointments to the board, he set January 2nd as a date for dealing with any further matters, if there are any that the new board may wish to address.
Erin Pleet, a Toronto lawyer representing A Better Niagara, said the group is prepared to address any issues the other parties may raise.
Meanwhile, the group hopes the new NPCA board members “will meet as soon as possible” to begin dealing with the chaos the judge acknowledged is currently plaguing the NPCA.
For the record, here are the full names of the interim members Niagara’s Regional Council appointed to the NPCA board this December 6th, along with the local municipalities they represent –
Members of the interim board include West Lincoln Mayor Dave Bylsma, Welland Regional Councillor Pat Chiocchio, Lincoln Regional Councillor Robert Foster, Niagara Falls Regional Councillor Barbara Greenwood, St. Catharines Regional Councillor Brian Heit, Pelham Regional Councillor Diana Huson, Grimsby Mayor Jeff Jordan, Port Colborne Mayor Bill Steele, Thorold Regional Councillor Tim Whalen, Fort Erie Regional Councillor Tom Insinna, Wainfleet Mayor Kevin Gibson and Niagara-on-the-Lake Regional Councillor Gary Zalepa.
To read another news commentary Niagara At Large recently posted on this matter, click on – https://niagaraatlarge.com/2018/12/21/we-the-people-not-only-deserve-to-have-but-need-to-have-our-conservation-authority-back/ .
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