By Gerry Barker
October 31, 2016
This is no Halloween prank.
Last Friday I complained to the Ontario Ombudsman’s office about that December 10, 2015 closed-session city council meeting that awarded $98,209 to three top staff managers for 2015. This decision was never reported or acknowledged by council until the provincial Sunshine List was published in March 2016.
You know how most of us felt when we found out the amounts given to former CAO Ann Pappert and DCAO’s Mark Amorosi and Derrick Thomson. Mr. Thomson had resigned to take a job with the Town of Caledon, where he resides, when the Sunshine List was published in March. He was quickly persuaded to return as CAO of our city to replace Ms. Pappert who resigned in May.
The Ombudsman’s office called me within two hours to say that they had no jurisdiction to handle the closed session complaint. It was because we had a council- appointed Closed Session Investigator
It turns out that back in January 1, 2008, the McGuinty Liberals ordered municipalities to hire their own Closed-Session Investigator to adjudicate whether councils had the right to discuss public business behind closed doors or not. In 2007, the Farbridge council voted to hire an outfit called Amberlea-Gravel Inc to be the city’s closed-session investigator.
At the time, it was legal and above board, according to the Ombudsman’s representative.
And almost nine years later, that outfit is still with us.
Checking out their website, we discover that there is an umbrella group called Local Authority Service (LAS) that is a subsidiary of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO). The membership is composed of elected officials from across the Province and is supported by the Ontario government.
Prior to implementation of LAS, municipalities were told they had to hire a “Closed Session Investigator” to investigate complaints about councils, committees and boards. Such a selection had to be completed by January 1, 2008.
That’s why the Farbridge administration hired Amberlea-Gravel to be its closed- session investigator. For nine years, they have been paid an annual retainer, plus an hourly rate for the investigator when a complaint is made and expenses.
Since 2008, I could find only one investigation made in January 2016 regarding the alleged walkout of four councillors during a closed-session meeting. The complaint was dismissed following the investigation.
The main reason is that the people did not know that the city had retained a Closed-Session Investigator to which they could complain about closed-sessions city operations. The proof of this is the number of investigations conducted by Amberlea-Gravel. So far in nine tears it’s one.
Here’s the conundrum. The closed-session investigation company is hired by the council, how is it possible to remain impartial? There is a requirement for trust and integrity by both parties in the resolution of the complaint.
This is a successful attempt to shut down citizen’s complaints. Not informing the public of the existence if this city closed session investigator, demonstrates another method to not expose details of the two administration’s agenda. It is one that has wasted millions in the past nine years. Both administrations were determined to maintain the now familiar pattern of secrecy and non-exposure of the city corporation’s business and operations.
Now we know why city Clerk Stephen O’Brien tells us the minutes of that Dec. 10 closed session of council are not available because, “they are not part of the public record.”
Well, I am requesting a complaint form from the Clerk regarding that December 10 closed-session meeting that gave those large salary increases to three managers. This is the complaint procedure outlined by Amberlea-Gravel.
It is now apparent that very few citizens, except in the administration, knew the closed-session investigator services existed.
Does this closed-session investigation firm only act when council or the City Clerk requests it? And why would council allow its closed-session meetings to be investigated by its own appointed investigator?
I am asking Amberlea-Gravel to confirm the number of closed-session investigations it has conducted in the past nine years for the City of Guelph and complainants.
I am also asking for the fees they are being paid to perform this function.
I found only one investigation by Amberlea-Gravel reported on its Website. There may be more. It does appear odd, that the Farbridge administration conducted an untold number of closed-session meetings during its eight years in office, and yet there is no evidence of investigation of those meetings?
It took a judge to expose the wrongful dismissal of Urbacon, the general contractor of the new city hall. The judgment was open and available to all citizens. It led to the defeat of Mayor Farbridge because it was made public and not locked up behind closed doors.
It should be noted that there is always a closed-session meeting held, starting two hours before every open council meeting. But it’s the other meetings in which decisions were made, in camera, that affect the citizens and the public treasure.
The case for the LAS investigations being independent is suspect in view of the AMO connection including in its membership members of Guelph city council. This organization is a creature of the province whereas the Ontario Ombudsman is totally independent.
Now here is delicious irony. In 2013, the Farbridge administration hired a Toronto consultant to develop an Open and Transparent Government Plan. The cost later revealed was $500,000 and a lengthy report was developed to direct the city toward setting up an open and transparent government that promised accountability to the stakeholders, that’s us.
Well, an election happened in the fall of 2014 and Mayor Karen Farbridge was defeated plus four member of her council, two of who did not run and two who were defeated.
Then in July 2015, Andy Best, a Farbridge supporter, was hired as a contractor earning $92,000 a year to manage the Farbridge Open Government Initiative. Results to open up council business to the public have been, year to date, a futile exercise.
According to the Ombudsman’s office, that Amberlea- Gravel Closed-Session Investigation firm is still with us. The Ombudsman cannot help expose this closed meeting.
So, how does the Guthrie administration reconcile the city paying a half million dollars to open up our city government? How many citizen complaints have been made to the Clerk’s office since 2008? Is Mayor Guthrie even aware that this outfit is still employed by the city? Is he aware that the Ombudsman’s office cannot investigate a closed-session complaint by a citizen because the city has its own investigator?
Kind of reminds us of the Maytag repairman who never had anything to do because the machines were so well built.
Is this a case of the 12–member city communication staff incapable of informing citizens of their right to complain about closed-session meetings?
Do we need more evidence that this is a giant threat to our rights of free speech and freedoms as citizens? Unless of course, there are complaints lodged by citizens through the Clerk’s office demanding explanation.
There is only one solution. Dismiss Amberlea-Gravel and engage the Ombudsman’s office to represent the city as its closed-session investigator. Some 210 Ontario Municipalities have already done this. At least if a citizen asks for an investigation of a closed-session of council, there will be an independent investigation by the Ombudsman’s office and the decision will be made public.
As a public service, here is the list of exception subjects that the Ontario Municipal Act, 2001, permits to hold a legal closed-session meeting of council or any subsidiary board or committee.
Preamble: A meeting or part of a meeting may be closed to the public if the subject matter being considered is:
* (a) The security of the property of the municipality or local board;
* (b) Personal matters about an identifiable individual, including municipal or local board employees;
* (c) A proposed or pending acquisition or disposition of land by the municipality or local board;
* (d) Labour relations or employer negotiations;
* (e) Litigation or potential litigation, including matter before administrative tribunals affecting the municipality or local board;
* (f) Advise that is subject to solicitor-client privilege, including communications necessary for that purpose;
* (g) A matter in respect in which a council, board, committee or other body may hold a closed meeting under another Act. 2001, c. 25, s. 239 (2).
The only possible category that council last December10 could have used as a reason to hold a closed meeting is the category, “Labour relations and employee negotiations.”
Exception (d) is a razor thin reason to close the meeting to award those excessive increases to three senior managers. It was confirmation of a decision already baked in the decision.
It was not a negotiation, it was a naked grab of power exercised in secret without any public knowledge or input. It allowed CAO Ann Pappert to retire in late May 2016 having earned some $52,798: ($3,132 per month increase X 16 months plus 26 days $2.677 = $52,798). This was in addition to her 2014 base salary of $219,500 but not her contractual severance allowances or taxable benefits.
Now we know why this was done behind closed doors. To this day not one member of council has admitted voting for that increase. It’s obvious the majority attending the meeting did vote to award the increases.
So, why haven’t elected councillors spoken up? It’s because of a threat of breaking the Code of Conduct that prevents members of council to reveal anything said in closed session. This could lead to an investigation by the Integrity Commissioner and possible sanction of the offending member.
Isn’t this a great way to run the public’s business? You elect a councillor with the belief he or she will represent your interests only to discover they don’t. It is the essence of the Big Brother syndrome, the control of the many by the chosen few concentrated in power.
Here’s how that works: What they don’t know, won’t hurt them.