Monthly Archives: May 2015

City Clerk explains how auditing a defeated candidate’s $4,000 election costs is $30,000

Posted May 9, 2015

The following response to questions raised by David Birtwistle, about the Compliance Election Committee’s decision to order an audit of former council candidate, Glen Tolhurst. City Clerk Stephen O’Brien replied to Mr. Birtwistle’s questions.

In the pubic interest, Guelph Speaks editor, Gerry Barker, responds to Mr. O’Brien’s explanations.

O’Brien: Thank you (Mr. Birtwistle) for your email. To answer your questions, I offer the following responses:

  1. The Municipal Elections Act (MEA) requires (s. 81[5]) that the Compliance Audit Committee (CAC) make a decision within 30 days of receipt of an application. Given the timelines for when the application received and in respect of our public notice and publication timelines, this was the only date that was available where a quorum of the committee could be present. Any delay of the meeting time further would have put us in contravention of the MEA.

Response: The definition of a quorum needs more explanation. Does the city’s procedural bylaw permit a quorum of two of three members of a committee to conduct hearings? If this was the only date available, why wasn’t the chairperson present on May 6? Is it possible a quorum of only one member could conduct the committee’s business? It defies logic how this two-person committee could make a decision that can cost the ratepayers more than $30,000 plus costs. They could have deferred a decision by holding a public meeting with all three members available, to determine if an audit is required. Further, why was this complaint made almost two months after Mr. Tolhurst submitted his financial report?

  1. Yes, the City’s Procedural by-law along with specific Rules of Procedure for the CAC apply. Both documents are available on our website.

Response: I realize that the rules must be followed. But this procedure to allow publishing notices of information and public meetings on the Internet, in this case, is a travesty of the public’s right to know. Popular use of the Internet is not widely viewed by many residents. The assumption that Internet is adequate notice is not true and is perceived as self-serving.

  1. You are incorrect in certain regards to this question. There was a meeting held on April 23rd, 2015 to orient members of the CAC to the process. Ms. Watson’s lawyer was not present but Dr. Galon was as a member of the public. No delegations were permitted at this meeting as the CAC only received a presentation from myself and a subject matter expert. No one was provided with a formal invite to the meeting. If individuals were interested in attending, the meeting notice was published to our website and individuals were free to attend given that this was an open and public meeting.

Response: It is odd that only one member of the public, Dennis Galon, a supporter of Ms. Watson, attended the April 23 meeting. Did he address the committee? Were there minutes of this meeting? Were all three members of the CAC in attendance? It indicates that the principals or the public did not receive adequate notification. As the senior official in charge of this matter, I believe it is incumbent on you to ensure that the test of fair play, in a highly contentious issue is met. Even as you state the meeting was published on the city website, it fails fair notification of the public and the principal, Mr. Tolhurst. Also, who is the “subject matter expert” and their role in this matter?

The question arises that the city website notification of a public meeting does not serve all of the public. Many folks including the senior population do not have access to a computer or the skill to operate it. While this form of notification may be permissible under the Act, the public perception is that it is not sufficient notice. The city using this method of communication expects that all citizens are on the city website every day. I seriously doubt that standard exists.

  1. No closed meeting was held in determining any action of the committee. The committee’s work was done in an open public meeting on May 6, 2015.

Response: I agree May 6 was a public meeting. What led up to it is open to question for reasons stated above.

  1. As per section 81.1(5) of the MEA, the City is required to pay all costs in relation to the CAC’s operation and activities. That being said, section 81(15) of the MEA allows for the Council to recover the auditor’s costs from the applicant should the auditor’s report indicate that there was no apparent contravention and the CAC finds that there were no reasonable grounds for the application.

Response: It is understandable that the 30-day deadline to a CAC respose to a complaint is designed to stop frivolous and time-wasting complaints. After waiting more than two months to file a complaint, the law was used to influence the outcome. That’s why that April 23 meeting to brief the committee was vital to holding a balanced hearing. Dr. Galon’s presence negated that committee responsibility. Mr. O’Brien, you would have been better off dragging a couple of citizen’s off the street to maintain a measure of a balanced public interest.

Comment

Before an audit begins the public has the right to know the audit parameters and the entire operation must be open and transparent. Under no circumstances should the auditor consider examining the personal finances of the principals.

This procedure is nothing but a political exercise to embarrass Mr. Tolhurst and GrassRoots Guelph. The travesty is that the citizens will end up paying for this willfulness initiated by a small cadre of Karen Farbridge supporters.

Be reminded of the $10,000 paid to the integrity commission to investigate former councillor Cam Guthrie. That turned out to be a waste of the public’s money.

This vindictive effort by Ms. Watson will trump that when all the costs are in. And will the city council, with its Farbridge majority, force the costs onto Ms. Watson if the audit fails to prove her case?

Finally, the committee voted, based on mostly hearsay evidence, to spend an estimated $25,000 to 30,000 to audit a defeated candidate’s expenses that were less than $4,000 in election spending.

This is a public outrage.

 

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The night democracy died in Guelph

Posted May 7, 2015

The election compliance committee of council appointees heard evidence Wednesday night, May 6, surrounding a complaint by resident Susan Watson. She, her Toronto lawyer, and two supporting spokespersons complained about defeated ward six candidate, Glen Tolhurst’s financial report. She contended that the $400 donated by citizen’s organization, GrassRoots Guelph was illegal.

The three-person committee was reduced to two when the chairperson did not show up. The committee, after hearing the statements, said it could not consider interpreting the Ontario Municipal Elections Act. This Act does not preclude third party involvement in municipal elections.

However, this two-person quasi-legal committee threw Roberts Rules of running meetings out the door. The two had one moving the motion to order an audit and the other seconding the motion. They then called a vote on the motion and both raised their hands.

In some circles, this could described as a kangaroo court when everything is decided in advance regardless of the testimony. It was revealed there was a meeting April 23 to explain the procedures of the compliance committee. Neither Mr. Tolhurst nor his lawyer, David Starr, was invited. This goose was cooked well in advance.

Following a ten-minute deliberation, the committee agreed to hire an outside auditor within three weeks to audit the Tolhurst election financial report. It was revealed the committee chairperson, who was not in attendance, had told her colleagues before the meeting to vote for an audit.

This is where things go from bad to worse. Recapping: Two appointees of the compliance committee decide to order an audit, the cost of which is estimated between $25,000 and $30,000.

Seems like the committee is willing to swat a mosquio with a sledgehammer. This is about auditing a defeated candidate’s election spending of under $4,000.

Then there is the possibility that in the event the auditor does not find Mr. Tohurst broke the rules, the complainant, besides paying for the audit, could also face damages levied by council.

Watson admitted after the meeting that there was no finding of wrongdoing by Mr. Tolhurst but her objective was “to pursue the matter to provide clarity around third party spending.”

So taxpayers are faced with an embarrassing situation where an individual, a personal friend and supporter of Karen Farbridge, seems to think that the rules of third party involvement in municipal elections are not clear.

Really! She chose to use public funds of the City of Guelph to make a point that needed to be resolved at the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. That being the case, why did she use the mechanism established by the city to “clarify” the issue of third party participation in Guelph’s election?

This is nothing but abuse of the Guelph system of electing representatives.

What will future citizens who are interested in contributing to their community, think when they are faced with this kind of silly, expensive obstruction of the public’s right to participate in municipal elections?

It should be noted that this so-called election compliance committee was formed in 2007 by the Farbridge administration.

It was like a dagger to the heart of our democratic right to serve our community without fear of retribution after the fact.

Expecting a professional auditor to determine if this Watson complaint has any validity is like smoking the wrong stuff.

It’s a shameful, futile exercise that should be stopped by council.

If for no other reason than to agree that a committee of two, moving and seconding a motion and voting unanimously to hire a $25,000 auditor, defies any democratic principle.

Shame on them.

 

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Dr. Galon and the political spin to destroy GrassRoots Guelph

Posted May 6, 2015

If only Dennis Galon would tell the truth about Susan Watson’s complaint about the right of citizens to participate in elections.

In a letter in the Mercury, Galon cites elements of the Ontario Corporations Act, dictionary definitions, the letters patent of GrassRoots Guelph (GRG). And he argues that because third party action is not permitted in provincial or federal elections, it should not be allowed in municipal elections.

But in Ontario it is.

The complaint about the legitimacy of GrassRoots Guelph to support specific candidates is rooted in anger by the upper echelons of Farbridge supporters who are still enraged that their leader was defeated. The role of GRG, a voluntary citizen’s activist group, was the result of collective action by citizens who were outraged by the handling of the Urbacon lawsuit.

Galon neglects to mention that to this day, the full costs of the Urbacon affair revelation of multi-million dollar mistakes and mismanagement are still not known.

Ergo, GRG is the target in this compliance committee hearing, but not invited to participate. It is a barefaced attempt to destroy GRG by convincing a body of an un-elected panel to carry out their wishes.

The outcome will be interesting because this panel has no authority or mandate to change the rules embodied in the Ontario Municipal Elections Act.

More important is the threat to individual’s rights to assemble, participate and support municipal candidates under the Charter of Rights.

Galon keeps harping about GRG was partisan and therefore maintained a point view that reflected the standards of Conservative party adherents. Nothing could be further from the truth. The GRG membership was open to anyone and included supporters of all four major political parties in its ranks. It points to the basic difference between provincial and federal elections and muncipal election.

Traditionally, there are no political parties in municipal elections. In recent years, that has changed in Guelph. Supporters of the New Democratic Party have emerged and control the city government through union support and a majority of council members. It evolved in the past eight years under the leadership of Karen Farbridge and members of the NDP dominated Guelph Civic League.

We can see the trend of NDP organizing on the municipal level across Canada. Two examples are the NDP wins was in Quebeec in the last federal election and last night’s sweep by the party in Alberta ending 43 years of Conservative domination.

If you’ll pardon the expression, the underlying reason is organizing the grassroots on the muncipal level to attain victory. The forerunner of this strategy was the Farbridge sweep to power in 2006 attained with the help of professional NDP organizers.

Isn’t that pure partisan participation in a municipal election?

This attack by the Farbridge forces on GRG started last year before the election when someone in the inner circle concocted this lame attempt to discredit GRG by identifying them with the conservative right wing of the political spectrum.

Let’s look at some of the reasons why citizen’s revolted at the polls and defeated the mayor and other supporters who either quit or were defeated.

While the Urbacon lawsuit tops the list, there were other issues that motivated rejection of the mayor and her cohorts:

* Waste management comes close to being a disaster with the costs of operation never revealed; the director resigning; failing to service an estimated 6,400 homes; depending on other jurisdictions to supply feedstock to the waste centre; installing a cart system costing $15 million that breaks down and fails to service condo development and businesses.

* The $34 million renovation of police headquarters without public input.

* Hiring of additional staff has only exacerbated their high costs. Staff costs are not just salary or wages but include pensions, health and life insurance, accumulated unused sick and vacation days. These future obligations total more than $11 million, increasing each year, and are guaranteed by the citizens of Guelph.

* The exponential increases in basic operations such as water and sewer charges, user fees and property tax rates topping off at 3.96 per cent this year, highest in five years.

* Using $30 million from the Brownfield remedial reserve to hi-rise condo developers in the form of grants and tax deferment. No mention of repayment to the depleted reserve.

* The city owned Guelph Municipal Holdings Inc has received so-called “dividends” exceeding $4 million from Guelph Hydro. This comes from power rates charged to the same citizens who must pay property taxes and user fees. And Hydro rates are going up again this year and next. This just causes anxiety among most Guelph citizens.

* Finally, engineering a Wyndham Street rail underpass with a low clearance preventing large commercial vehicles using it.

Mr. Galon, you and your friends should look inwardly before complaining about the legitimacy of GRG and its role the October 2014 election.

And why now? It’s six months after the fact.

Why not inform the citizens of the costs of this exercise? To satisfy your hurt feelings about the outcome, are you expecting the costs to come from the public trough? Further, who is paying for Ms. Watson’s Toronto lawyer?

It’s all about using someone else’s money to retain power.

 

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The assault on citizen’s rights and common sense by the friends of Farbridge

Posted May 4, 2015

On Wednesday night at 5 p.m., in the city council chambers, the compliance committee of council will hear reasons why GrassRoots Guelph did not have the authority, or is it audacity, to support candidates on the October 2014 civic election.

The complaint made by Susan Watson, Farbridge friend, and, along with her partner, Dr. Ian Digby, donated more than $4,000 to a number of candidates from the ranks of various unions in and out of Guelph. The complaint is based on the right of a non-profit, non-partisan, incorporated organization to support candidates of choice and assist them financially if necessary.

The irony of this search and destroy effort is that the political organizations that supported the Farbridge campaign boasted of running pro-union candidates in every ward and financially supporting them.

David Galon, another Farbridge supporter, contends that it is all right for unions to be actively involved in municipal elections but not a legal citizen’s activist group, dedicated to informing the public of the dismal record of the Farbridge years.

And, how dismal was it?

Her legacy of mismanagement, misrepresentation and having her surrogates spin the truth in a manner that is almost laughable.

It all came to head in March 2014 when a judge found the city illegally terminated the general contractor of the new city hall, Urbacon, September 2008. The blame for this was placed on former CAO Hans Loewig, not the mayor, not council.

Do you believe that this was the action of a power-tripping CAO, fed up with all the missed completion deadlines, and on his own, threw Urbacon off the job? Well, as it turned out, the vast majority of voters didn’t believe it and the mayor lost her re-election bid.

That March 2014 judgment was when the people decided they had enough of Karen Farbridge and some of her councillors who either quit or were defeated.

The real cost of that monumental error in judgment is still not known. An educated guess it is north of $18 million when the city’s legal fees, settelements of other associated lawsuits and payments to third parties such as the subcontractors are made public.

So, Chief Administrative Officer Ann Pappert, a Farbridge hands-on choice for the job, said the Urbacon settlement will not affect property taxes. She further said the $8.89 million settlement with Urbacon will be paid with your savings from three reserve funds and the funds would be replenished over the next five years.

On April 25, 2015, council approved the highest property tax increase in five years of 3.96 per cent.

Enter stage left, the oracle of ward six, Karl Wettstein. He moved that instead of the $900,000 that was to start the replenishment of the vacated reserve funds, that council approve only $500,000. His motion included shifting the responsibility of finding a new plan to re-fill the $8.93 million taken from the reserves to the city staff.

At this rate, the Urbacon costs will be around for your grandchildren to pay. That is if they can afford to live in Guelph.

But hey! That same night council approved spending $600,000 on multi-use paths on busy Woodlawn Avenue.

If this wasn’t a spit-in-your-eye to the citizens of Guelph, we don’t know what is.

But this soap opera is not over yet. Susan Watson, along with her lawyer from Toronto, is determined to destroy the fundamental right of citizens under the Charter of Rights – freedom of association – to gather and oppose political thought and action without frivolous attempts to destroy that right.

Take some time to attend the Wednesday night meeting and show support for Glen Tolhurst, a decent man who offered his experience and knowledge to the voters of ward six. He lost and the reason for this Watson-inspired charade is, what?

Even more interesting is who is paying for this exercise?

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