We Need Several More Citizen Board Members Like Him To Finally Clean Up the Monumental Mess at the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority
A News Commentary by Doug Draper
Posted February 26th, 2019 on Niagara At Large
Less than a week after the chair of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority’s current board of directors cast the sole vote against allowing Ed Smith and another Niagara citizen speak at one of the board’s meetings, Smith may now only be weeks away from taking a seat around the board table.
The community activist, who has been among the most vocal critics across the region of the way the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA) has been doing business in recent years, received the support of St. Catharines’ city council this February 25th to sit on the Conservation Authority’s board.
Smith, a retired Canadian Armed Forces officer who, more than a year ago, defeated an attempt by the NPCA’s senior administrators and old board to sue him after he circulated a list of questions and concerns about the way the public agency is spending millions of Niagara tax dollars, was one of more than 30 St. Catharines residents who applied for the one and only seat the city can have on a board that currently allows one seat to be filled by each of Niagara’s 12 municipalities.
He was selected for St. Catharines seat by a three-person nominating committee made up of city councillors Bruce Williamson, Carlos Garcia and Greg Miller. The committee was assembled after the city’s new council was sworn in last December and began advertising publicly for interested citizens to apply for the board seat.
“Ed Smith … is the person who led the way in uncovering the deeply entrenched corruption at the NPCA despite being threatened and sued, and actually winning his legal case,” said Williamson before the council voted this February 25th to send Smith’s name on to Niagara’s Regional Council for final approval.
“No one knows the operations and mandate of the conservation authority better than him,” added Williamson, who during the last term of city council was one of the first municipal politicians across Niagara to table motions calling for an independent audit of the NPCA’s operations (well before Ontario’s Auditor General finally came in and performed one) and calling on the province to appoint a special supervisor to come in and clean house at the Conservation Authority – something the province’s former Liberal government of Kathleen Wynne failed to do.
At a meeting this past February 20th of the NPCA’s board – a board consisting of 12 Niagara mayors and regional councillors appointed last December 6th to a three-month interim period on the board by Niagara’s new regional council – Smith and Ken Kawall, a Lincoln resident and chartered professional accountant and past Assistant Deputy Minister with three different Ontario government ministries, came to speak as delegations to the board.
Smith, who is also a director with a region-wide citizens group called A Better Niagara, came to speak about outstanding questions and concerns citizens have over the firing of then NPCA CAO Mark Brickell (who is now suing the Conservation Authority for $2.3 million, claiming he was fired illegally), over the firing and rehiring, and subsequent elevation of NPCA administrator David Barrick to the role of “acting CAO”, and over other employment moves that were made at the Conservation – all within the span of a we weeks late last November and early last December.
Kawall, who earlier hoped to talk about the board about the NPCA’s budget, and had not heard back after his request, to do so had come this time to offer a presentation on governance issues at the Conservation Authority.
When the board took a vote on whether or not to allow Smith and Kawall to speak, the only one voting against them speaking was the board’s chair, West Lincoln Mayor Dave Bylsma, who then noted that each speaker had only five minutes (by comparison, Niagara Region’s council allows for 10 minutes) to make their presentation.
Kawall barely got into the real substance of a presentation he took days going through the NPCA’s strategic plan and other documents to prepare, when a loud gong, startling some citizens in the gallery, went off and Kawall’s microphone was turned off.
When Smith came to the podium, he began this way –
“That is the most disrespectful think I have ever seen a citizen put through,” he said of the way Kawall was treated. “I don’t think that people understand what it takes for citizens to put their time into things, then come and speak publicly – especially when you are speaking to a hostile audience (meaning members of the NPCA’s board and senior staff),” Smith added, and “that was very hostile.”
Before he left the podium, Smith also had something to say about a phone a call earlier this February that the Niagara Regional Police said came from someone in the NPCA who apparently charged that the citizens group he is part of, A Better Niagara, had posted something threatening about a senior administrator at the Conservation Authority on social media – a charge police quickly concluded did not warrant any further action.
“A week (or some) 10 days ago, the police were called on A Better Niagara,” Smith told members of the NPCA board. “As far as we are concerned, that call came from the NPCA.”
“This board did not speak out against it. You do not have any stated values against it,” he said, “so this board owns it.”
“A call was made to the police in order to intimidate citizens and you did not go public and you did not speak out against it,” Smith stressed. “That’s all I have to say.”
It now looks like Smith will soon have an opportunity to say quite a few more things about matters at the NPCA that are of concern to the public, as a member of the Conservation Authority’s board.
St. Catharines city council’s approval of Smith’s application to sit on the board comes less than a week after Barrick negotiated a “mutual separation agreement” (effective this past February 21st) with the NPCA at a cost to Niagara tax payers that the current NPCA board is so far refusing to disclose.
It also comes just a few days before a February 28th Niagara Regional Council meeting where the NPCA board’s chair, Dave Bylsma, says Niagara’s current 12 interim board members are going to ask for approval for a three-month extension of their time in order to continue addressing governance issues at this still dysfunctional agency.
To that expected request from Bylsma and company for an extension, this Niagara At Large journalist says this.
Given some of the questionable and, in some cases, disturbing and unacceptable activity that has continued to occur under this interim board’s watch over the past almost three months, Niagara’s Regional Council should seriously consider working to replace this board with citizen members as dedicated and as well versed on what is wrong in this troubled agency AS SOON AS POSSIBLE!
In all due respect to some members of this interim board who have tried to move things along, this journalist would be willing to bet that the Region could have assigned a mix of first year university or college students studying civics, governance and crisis management to rebuild this fractured agency, and they, by now, would have been further ahead than this.
Bylsma and others on this board have repeatedly asked the public for more patience.
The public, as well as what is left of the good rank-and-file staff at the NPCA, and at least one other highly respected former NPCA conservationist who is still fighting an unjust lawsuit filed against her by this agency, has been patient for years now.
This interim group of NPCA board members should have known that patience has run out, and it should have been versed on all of the recommendations in the scorching report Ontario’s Auditor General, Bonnie Lysyk, released on this agency last September, and hit the ground running on day one.
There has been no real running for almost three months now to address a multitude of issues at this agency that require real action.
Before this Thursday’s (February 28th) Regional Council meeting, Niagara At Large will post more commentary on why we need new board members like Ed Smith – with the knowledge, dedication and strength of will to turn the NPCA into a real conservation and environmental protection agency again – not three months from now, but as soon as possible.
For past news and commentary Niagara At Large has posted about Ed Smith and his efforts as a citizen activist, click on – https://niagaraatlarge.com/2017/01/07/ed-smith-niagara-at-larges-person-of-the-year-for-2016/
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