By Gerry Barker
August 23, 2018
More than two years ago, I asked the Ontario Ombudsman office to assist me in obtaining the minutes of a city council closed-session meeting conducted December 10,2015. That meeting approved salary and bonus increases to the four senior staff managers that totaled $98,202.
At the time of the request, only council and some staffers knew what those increases were and why was there no explanation?
The Ombudsman representative told me that that office could not assist because “Guelph had its own special investigator of closed session meetings” … Amberlea Gravel located in London. This organization was hired by the city in 2008 and had been on retainer for the past ten years.
I filed a request for the minutes through the city clerk’s office. It took more than four months to be told that my request was denied. By that time, the increases had been revealed when the 2015 Sunshine list was published in March 2016.
To this day, the city administration has never explained why it withheld that information for almost four months and has yet to acknowledge it.
The cover-up was controlled behind closed doors.
It got me thinking this year about the methods used by the current Guthrie administration to suppress public participation in the business of the city.
So I checked with the city clerk and requested how many closed-session meetings were held since January 2015 to a couple of months ago.
I was informed that in 2015 and 2016 there were 41 such meetings held in each year. That’s 82 over 24 months. That number dropped in 2017 when the council voted to conduct its business acting as the ‘committee of the whole.’ Last year there were 12 closed-session meetings with a similar number this year to date.
Why does this matter?
It is a slippery slope that allows city council and senior staff to virtually, make decisions in secret, without public input or knowledge. It results in pre-digesting the contentious items of business without telling anyone.
That’s how the Farbridge administration wasted millions on the Guelph Municipal Holdings Inc (GMHI) by imposing silence for four years using closed-session meetings.
To prevent leaks of the details of those closed-sessions, the hammer over the councillors was the threat of the Integrity Commissioner investigating the alleged misconduct and potential penalties.
The scope of this GMHI ‘green’ adventure was to create power self-suffiency and potential heating and cooling of downtown building and the Hanlon Business Park.
It was finally exposed following the defeat of the former mayor in 2014. It took until May 2016 before the awful truth was revealed. Ironically, the report was presented by GMHI CFO Pankaj Sardana and signed by Chief Administrative Officer (at the time) Ann Pappert. Ms. Pappert was appointed Chief Executive Officer of GMHI in 2011. So, she was wearing two executive hats and had to have intimate knowledge of the city and GMHI operations for four years.
But it gets better, or worse as the case may be. The former mayor was chairperson of the GMHI Board of Directors. Because of her position as mayor and head of GMHI that included Guelph Hydro, she named four members of council to the GMHI Board.
These included Councillors June Hofland who was also head of the council finance committee, Karl Wettstein, Lise Burcher and Todd Dennis. This gave Ms.Farbridge complete control of both the city and GMHI.
The disturbing situation some four years later, is that the financial mess is still to be cleaned up as contracts and operation of the District Energy pumps are still operating to supply hot and cold water to five buildings downtown, including the Sleeman Centre and River-Run theatre across the street.
Best estimate of the cost of wrap-up will require $17 million and counting. The bottom line is there remains insufficient revenue to continue operating GMHI but the problem has yet to be resolved. The purchase of GMHI shares by Alectra may solve the situation. According to the merger agreement, the proposed Alectra Inc. dividend will be paid to GMHI, not the city.
The Guthrie administration has promoted the sale of GMHI shares, which are worthless, to Alectra Inc as part of a merger agreement. The data shows that the owner of Guelph Hydro ‘s tangible assets including poles, wires, substations, and equipment is the subsidiary corporation Guelph Hydro Electric Services Inc.
And who owns GHESI? Why it’s GMHI. That’s why Alectra is ‘purchasing the shares of GMHI.
How did we get into this pickle?
Because as citizens we were denied important information and details including a supportive business plan that made sense, not chaos.
It was a carefully orchestrated scheme that was under the control of a city council, of which most members were bereft of skills, financial acumen and conscience.
So what does the Guthrie council do? They approve entering an agreement with a private corporation to redevelop the Baker Street parking lot into a spiffy downtown showcase of mixed use including a new library, businesses, shops and residences.
The estimated cost of this grand design is unknown. One estimate said between $314 and $350 million. This proposal won’t start until 2024. Citizens have no information about the city’s share of the development. And it won’t be ready for occupancy until at least 2028.
When is this stream of building abortive monuments going to stop? There is plenty of blame to go around. But until we elect responsible and experienced councillors we will continue swimming in a sea of uncontrollable, ego-driven waste of resources.