By Gerry Barker
January 20, 2020
In 2006, the McGuinty Liberal government, to placate the municipalities’ lobby machine to extend the three-year term of council elections to four years.
In 2006, Guelph elected its first council for four years led by former Mayor, Karen Farbridge. Only two councillors survived the onslaught of the leftist-based Farbridge council supported by the national NDP organization.
What followed was a total domination of the city, its responsibility to the citizens and soaring property tax increases exceeding 3 per cent every year for eight years plus increasing user fees, including water.
So, where did the city collect and spend the money starting in 2007?
The city functions by using an operating budget and a capital spending budget for major projects.
The first was approving spending $12,7000 to convert the abandoned convent building owned by the Diocese of Hamilton. The church wanted to demolish the convent to create more parking for parishioners.
Instead, the city persuaded the church to lease the building to save it as an historic pre-Confederation building. Newly elected councillor Leanne Piper, former chair of the Guelph Heritage group proposed the project to turn it into a Civic Museum.
A noble project in which a minority of the public participated
Four years later the city announced the project cost was $16.5 million.
That does not include the operating costs such as staff, utilities, maintenance, insurance and depreciation.
That was only the beginning of a council that failed to uphold their sworn duty to protect the public trust.
Through all this, the central library replacement, announced by the former mayor in her first three-year term in office was a new downtown library was a priority for council.
Twenty years later we are still waiting.
Here’s a list of some of the projects that were passed by council, without public discussion or involving the citizen stakeholders and their right to accountability and transparency.
* In 2013, council hired a consultant to prepare and plan incorporating accountability, transparency and open government. The bill for that project was $500,000.
* The Organic Waste Processing Facility, that was over built costing $34 million and the builder is still operating the plant. The operation has been a costly, mismanaged project of which the citizens were kept in the dark.
* Spending $15 million for a automated waste collection system using special trucks, each costing $150,000 to do the job, followed that. The troubled\ was the maintenance of the vehicles soured. In addition, several of the new residential developments could not accommodate the vehicles. They were forced to hire contractors to pick up the trash.
* Next came the legal battle to reduce its contribution to the Guelph, Wellington, and Duffrin Public health organization voting to build a new headquarters in Guelph cost $17 million The Mayor sued because Guelph had contributed $10 milliohn to the project, approved by the board of directors.
She lost the lawsuit. The legal bill was reported to cost the city $10,000.
Let’s pause for a minute
In 2006 the city staff number of employees was 1.400. Today, we employ 2,300 full-time and part-time employees. For the record, the cost of city staff consumes 80 per cent of all property taxes. So this is an example of an employee merry-go-round.
The two effects of this unprecedented expansion of staff is one of the exponential growth annual increase in the number of staff and two, the increase in remuneration to the entire staff. Do you believe that a city staffer employed in 2006 witnessed his salary and benefits declining? That’s an unrealistic assumption.
Of course not because of inflation that boosts costs annually.
How about your salary and benefits, pension and elderly benefits increases?
My friends, this is the biggest problem of incompetence by the staff and the elected officials.
They have become one and the same. The trade unions that dominate the city staff work hand in glove with the elected city convoy. Councillors become dependent on the staff in the decision making process.
Should I remind that the majority of city council have acquiesced to the staff for the past 14 years
Let’s move on to expose more of council mismanagement
In n2014, Superior Court Justice Donald Mackenzie, found the city guilty of wrongful dismissal of Urbacon Buildings Group Inc., the general contactors of the old and new City Hall project on Carden Street.
That was settled by the city and cost an additionaL $23 million over the otiginal $42 million contract. That was a 53 per cent increase over six years
Imagine this. You and your spouse are sitting around the kitchen table and sign a contract to remodel the kitchen for $XX. Then you change your mind and add other feature additions. The contractor say wait a minute that’s not what we agreed to.
Regardless, that’s what your city did to you.
Now it gets interesting.
With the defeat of Mayor Farbridge in 2014, and a number of her council, there was something else going on. Newly elected Mayor Guthrie discovered a financial disaster involving Guelph Municipal Holding Inc.
This was a special project the former mayor put together
While mayor, she made herself chair of GMHI board of directors, and then transferred the city-owned Guelph Hydro to GMHI. She also selected city CAO, Ann Pappert, as the CEO of GMHI.
None of this was reported in the midia includingn the only weekly newspaper in the ity. In fact, almost all of the meetings by the GMHI board were conducted in closed-session.
As part of my defence against the city financed defamation lawsuit, I revealed the increases or the three top managers authorized by a closed-session council meeting, Dec. 10, 2015
These details were only revealed four months later when the provincial Sunshine List was published March 31, 2016.
Now, under the Guthrie administration, there are more closed-sessions by council.
In the fall of 2017, council appoints a special committee to investigate the options of selling, merging or keeping it. The result was, the selling option was off the table. And a merger with Alectra Utilities was recommended by the committee apointed by city council..
Late that year, the accounting firm KPMG announced results of a GMHI consolidated audit that showed the shareholders liability of $66 million. What followed was a highly contrived public relations campaign costing citizens $2.5 million resulting in council approving the merger.
To this day, it remain the greatest blunder of financial management in the city’s history. Council gave Guelph Hydro away for peanuts and promises.
What can citizens do to protect their civic assets and the rights to object?
Against this closed-session juggernaut of municipal power there is almost no opportunity to participate, seek accountability or reject the action of the elected officials and staff.
Today, our only option comes every four years during the civic election. The next one is in 2022.
Here how the deck is stacked against you
The city uses closed-sessions to conduct its business.
They use a hired integrity commissioner to keep council members in line and not reveal discussions of closed-session meetings. They are on retainer plus time involving an investigation of a breach of the council Code of Conduct.
An outfit called Amberlee Gravel, who is the special investigators of closed-session council or board meetings when a citizen complains, polices citizen complaints. They are also on an annual retainer plus time investigating.
Since being appointed in 2008, there have been four complaints or requests. All were denied. My request for the minutes of the December 10, 2015 closed-session meeting took four months to decide whether to release the information. Denied.
Remember the power of running the city rests only with city council.
The Ontario Ombudsman’s office refuses to intervene to assist citizens if their city employs an outside special investigator.
In my opinion, there is a conflict of interest that prevents a citizen’s requests apparently by the city’s special closed-session investigatort and the Ombudsman’s office
It’s a municipal Catch 22
The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, in my experience, is to put it mildly, highly politically partnered with its legislative bosses and ineffective.
Citizens in Guelph have no recourse to have honest, unfettered, non-political hearings of grievances.
How serious is this?
Your city administration is using your money to support a private lawsuit initiated in 2016, against me by a former employee who was fired, according to four major media outlets. His sworn testimony before the court was that he “agreed” to leave.
Was he a team player? Planned on retiring anyway?
I can tell you that he did not receive any additional compensatio after February 20, 2017.
This is a prime example of abuse of power against a citizen who was critical of the secrecy involved in large increases to three top staff managers.
This lawsuit now in its fourth year is not just about Gerry Barker, it’s about all citizens who dare to be critical of public administration that are considered by the city to be improper or incorrect.
I believe citizens must appeal to the provincial government to allow a mechanism to recall any councillor or employee who is complicit in not performing their duties or operate outside their oath of office and its responsibilities.