Not Necessarily the Best Way to Begin a New Era of “Openness and Accountability”
A News Commentary by Doug Draper
Posted January 8th, 2019 on Niagara At Large
The new board of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority was finally able to hold its first meeting this January 7th – less than an hour of it in public, and close to three and a half hours behind closed doors.
The open session of the new NPCA board looked like this –
The glass doors to the meeting room, papered over as they often were when the NPCA’s old board was in session, were papered over again, as shown here this January 7th, while the new council was in closed session for more than three hours –
Welcome to another week of what has be touted as a new term and a new era of openness and accountability in municipal governance in Niagara where so far, at the NPCA and at the Niagara Regional Council level, our elected representatives have chalked up more time behind closed doors than they have with a gallery of citizens looking on.
And so it was this January 7th, that after about the first half hour of the first meeting of NPCA’s new board, its members voted to continue with their business in closed session, leaving about 40 or more members of the public out in the hall, on the other side of those papered-over doors.
Interestingly enough, some of those people turned out in the hall included members of the citizens group, A Better Niagara, that helped make it possible for this first meeting of the new board to occur as soon as it did in the first place.
It was this group that took a lead in filing a successful action in the Ontario Courts this past December that blew up a log jam between members of the NPCA old board who were refusing to give up their seats and go away, and the 12 Niagara regional councillors appointed by the Region’s council last December 6th to hold a first meeting as soon as possible.
Oh well, as the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King once observed; “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. … Every step toward the goal requires … struggle.” And at least these citizens helped secure an order from an Ontario Superior Court Justice, James Ramsey, for a first meeting of the new board without any further resistance from remnants of the old guard.
In the first half hour of the January 7th board meeting (during the open session), members of the board chose, among themselves, an interim chair, West Lincoln Mayor Dave Bylsma, and co-chair, Pelham Regional Councillor Diana Huson, who in her bid for the position, drew some applause from people in the gallery for saying something many had been waiting to hear for quite some time from anyone seated on the NPCA board – that she wants to see this public agency get back to a place where it is more dedicated to environmental protection and its conservation mandate.
Also in that first half hour, Hamilton City Councillor Brad Clark and a new NPCA board member for his municipality, which has lands in the upper reaches of watershed over which the Conservation Authority has jurisdiction, gave notice that he would table a motion to censure another Hamilton board member, James Kaspersetz.
The new board would later vote to support that motion, aimed Kaspersetz way for recently posting an anti-Muslim message on Facebook which read; “77 years after Pearl Harbor, it still hurts but 17 years after 9/11 we are moving them here and adapting their laws in places?”
Following some negative media exposure and protest from the public, Kaspersetz removed the message from his Facebook page but Clark wanted the censure passed, he said, to send out a clear message that “this behavior is absolutely intolerable” to the City of Hamilton and the NPCA.
Then there was the more than three hours of closed session deliberations where the board was reportedly dealing with human resources matters at this Conservation Authority where five or six years’ worth of controversy over staff hirings and firings, and promotions awarded to certain individuals continued right up to a few weeks ago.
The sheer number of questions and concerns that have mounted over staff issues at the NPCA may explained why a group of mostly new board members spent so much time behind closed doors this January 7th. But given all of the promises made before and after last October’s municipal elections about more openness accountability, the optics of having most of the citizens who were there for the first 30 minutes give up and head for home before the doors -re-opened, don’t look good.
There were only a very few members of the public and media left when the doors were finally opened again to hear the board pass motions around wanting a temporary freeze on any further firings, hirings and promotions while board members have a chance to receive and review lists of information around all of that.
While this first meeting of the new board was in progress, The St. Catharines Standard posted a story that Mark Brickell, the NPCA’s CAO who had been fired by members of this old board a month ago, has decided not to pursue a fight to get his job back.
However, Brickell’s lawyers reported sent a letter to Niagara’s Regional Council stating that “neither the regional council nor the NPCA should treat this letter, however, as in any way constituting a suggestion that our client’s termination was somehow lawful, fair, reasonable and/or justified.”
At this January 7th’s board meeting, David Barrick, who was reportedly fired from his job as the NPCA’s corporate services director by Brickell before members of the old board fired Brickell and hired Barrick back as the Conservation Authority’s acting CAO, was there until the end of the meeting, still serving as acting CAO.
Also working with the new board this January 7th was Krystle Caputo, who was a communications staffer before recently being promoted by the old board to director of communications and administration, and Michael Reles, who was the communications director, but is now doing whatever else with the NPCA.
So what’s next? Who knows.
It is unclear, at the moment, what Hamilton’s city council may do with a position it embraced in a motion tabled at one of its meetings late last year that it should have four members on the NPCA board, rather than two it had over the past few decades, and that Niagara should only have five rather than 12 (with one appointed by each of the region’s 12 local municipalities).
The board is apparently scheduled to meet again later this January at what is supposed to be an annual general meeting.
Stay Tuned to Niagara At Large for more.
To watch a video of the January 7th meeting of the new NPCA board, click on the screen below –
Niagara’s 12 interim members on the NPCA 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.
These members have been appointed by Niagara Region’s council for a three month period.
Most, if not all of Niagara’s 12 municipalities are also already in the process of appointing members to serve on the board for the rest of the current four year term.
To read another related news commentary posted on Niagara At Large on the NPCA issue, click on – https://niagaraatlarge.com/2019/01/05/its-time-for-a-new-board-to-clean-up-the-mess-and-end-the-chaos-at-the-npca/ .
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