People of Niagara Deserve Far Better from an Agency that has a Vital Role to Play in Environmental Stewardship
A Commentary by Niagara At Large reporter and publisher Doug Draper
Posted January 4th, 2019 on Niagara At Large
To quote the late, great American anthropologist Margaret Mead; “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Those inspiring words crossed my mind a number of times over the past few weeks after A Better Niagara, a group of thoughtful, committed citizens in our Niagara region, took a lead in doing what no other group or government body would do before it did – file an action in the Ontario courts to settle questions and concerns over how many representatives from our Niagara region can sit on the board of directors of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA), and when those member can finally hold a first meeting.
This past December 21st, and again this January 2nd – thanks in large part to a an application filed in the courts by members of A Better Niagara and their lawyer Erin Pleet – Ontario Superior Court Justice James Ramsey issued the following orders:
- That the 12 Niagara regional councillors that the Region’s new council appointed to the board last at its December 6th inaugural meeting are Niagara’s board members on the board, and that the old board members are out, and;
- That the new board of the NPCA hold its first meeting this January 7th.
To its credit, Niagara’s regional government agreed to join A Better Niagara in the court action. But it was A Better Niagara that led the way, and one member of the Region’s new council, Wayne Fertich from Grimsby, was good enough to stand up at a December 28th special meeting of the council and give the group the credit it deserves.
“I would just like to thank the Better Niagara group for putting a fire under our backsides and everyone else’s,” said Fertich as A Better Niagara’s directors, Ed Smith and Liz Benneian, and other members of the group sat in the gallery of the Region’s council chambers listening. “I think they did a fabulous job.”
After those kind words, the Region’s council voted to move into a closed session that lasted for more than two hours to discuss ongoing problems at the NPCA and other matters. Then, following that closed session and another session in the court with Judge Ramsey this January 2nd, the Region circulated a brief statement to the public, outlining the “purposes” of the January 7th board meeting.
Those purposes include “electing a chair and a vice chair (for the board), reviewing current status and requesting updates from NPCA staff regarding operations, including HR (human resources) organizational changes and other ongoing matters, (and) receiving advice from NPCA’s legal counsel regarding HR matters.”
Electing a chair and vice from among those on the new board may go well, since there are a number of good members to choose from for those two key roles.
Then the fun starts.
What members of the NPCA staff is the new board going to review the current status of operations at the Conservation Authority with?
Will one of those members be David Barrick, who was, before he was recently fired and re-hired, the NPCA’s corporate services director (and earlier on its operations manager), but is now “allegedly” (to repeat the word Justice Ramsey used in court) its acting CAO?
Will one of them be Krystle Caputo, a communications staffer who was recently promoted by “whoever is running the place now” (to borrow a bit more from the words the judge used n court) to the position of director or communications and administration? Will one of them be Michael Reles, who was the communications director, and may or may not be doing something else at the Conservation Authority now?
Then who is going to give the board legal counsel on HR matters for the NPCA?
Will it be the lawyer that the NPCA used more than a year ago to pursue what turned out to be the unsuccessful defamation lawsuit against St. Catharines citizen Ed Smith after he raised a list of questions and concerns about the Conservation Authority’s operations?
Will it be the lawyer the NPCA is still using to fight a lawsuit it slapped against former Conservation Authority employee Jocelyn Baker for allegedly breaching a non-disclosure clause in her termination papers after she raised concerns about working conditions inside the agency?
Or how about the lawyer that recently advised members of the old NPCA board to use a 25-year-old Order-in-Council from the province (an Order an Ontario ministry official has since deemed to be null and void) to justify holding on to their seats?
Will whoever is running the NPCA now even have a lawyer present this January 7th since, according to an affidavit signed by its communications director, Caputo, and filed in the courts this December 31st, they didn’t have time to get a lawyer involved before Justice Ramsey issued his orders.
As for the affidavit, what a piece of work that is!
Here is just a sample of the questions it raises about A Better Niagara, in an apparent attempt to challenge the right of these citizens to raise questions and concerns and play a watchdog role on government in a democracy –
“Under normal light, A Better Niagara and their group activities could reasonably be seen as lobbying and as such would be required to follow Lobbyist Registration Act, 1998, S.O., 1998, C, 27, …” etc.
The affidavit goes on to question what A Better Niagara’s status is and why this group of citizens, which first came together to get more people in Niagara engaged in voting for change in last October’s municipal elections, is still around raising questions and addressing issues..
“The election is over, what is their status? They seem to be registered as a not for profit corporation … but I (Caputo, who signed the affidavit) could not find any evidence on their website of an Annual General Meeting, By-laws, Agendas or Minutes for meetings, nor any financial disclosure associated with requirements set out in Not-for Profit Corporations Act, 2010, S.O., 2010 …” etc. “I formally request to see those documents by way of this Affidavit.”
And finally, here is just one more entry from the Affidavit for readers I haven’t lost yet –
“ABN (A Better Niagara) uses social platforms to attack and bully politicians they feel are connected with the Conservative government. As an example, Mr. Ed Smith’s (Director of ABN) twitter account contains almost exclusively tweets against the NPCA and/or board members and some current staff.”
No kidding and guess what. This veteran reporter, who has written volumes of positive stories about the good conservation work the NPCA was doing when individuals like Andy Burt (one of its former CAOs) was running the body, has posted a truck load of commentary against the NPCA and those who have sat on its board in recent years too.
And anyone who doesn’t understand why this reporter has posted such commentary or why citizens like Ed Smith has so much negative information about the NPCA on his twitter account has not been paying attention to what has been going on at this agency in recent years.
In my almost 40 years as a journalist covering environment and other issues, I have found myself in the middle of plenty of very hot and heavy battles between citizen groups and government, and between citizens and some of the biggest and toughest corporations on the continent, and I have never come across a statement or document like this affidavit.
This affidavit was put together on behalf of a public agency in Niagara, funded with our municipal tax dollars, by one or more individuals in that agency who are getting paid by us and who are working in a building owned by the Region and the people of Niagara.
Is this the kind of stuff our hard-earned tax dollars are being used to produce? Can someone please explain why we should be paying for this?
A Better Niagara and Ed Smith and other groups and citizens like them have every damn right in a democracy to raise questions and concerns and to take their concerns to a court of law if they want to.
In November of 2017, when the same Ontario court judge – Justice James Ramsey – ruled against the lawsuit the NPCA slapped against Ed Smith after Smith circulated a document raising questions and concerns about that agency at the time, Ramsey stated this in his ruling –
“I share the defendant’s (Ed Smith’s) disappointment at his treatment by the Authority (NPCA). A private citizen,” said the Judge, “he (Smith) raised questions about the governance of the authority. He was met with a public accusation of forgery and the threat of litigation from “his own government,” as he put it, together with a demand that he issue a written apology, undertake never again to publish “the document” which contained many things that are not said to be actionable, and reveal his sources.”
“There are many places in the world where I might expect such a thing to happen,” concluded Judge Ramsay, “but not in our beloved Dominion.”
Let’s hope that if and when the new board of the NPCA meets this January 7th, that they remember Justice Ramsey’s words, and that they remember the clear message voters sent to their elected representatives in last October’s municipal elections for more openness, fairness and accountability when it comes to our publicly funded services.
Please do the right thing by the people of Niagara. We deserve a Conservation Authority that is not, as the judge recently described it, in a state of “chaos.
Enough is enough, already!
And finally, in the contrast to Margaret Mead’s line about the important role small groups play in changing the world, that affidavit that whoever is running the NPCA now prepared for the court had the nerve to state – “A Better Niagara does not represent the voters, elected officials represent the voters.”
Actually, elected officials are there to serve the citizens who have the right in a democracy to raise their concerns, and to vote officials in or out if they are unhappy with the way they are doing their job.
And thank God we have citizen groups like A Better Niagara around to, as the regional councillor from Grimsby put it, light a fire under the backsides of their elected representatives.
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