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"We need to go to the ombudsman. The public will only have confidence that way –Bruce Timms

14 Sep 2018

Wanted: Handyman to deal with Region's leaks Regional council asks expert for help in keeping its secrets

by Bill Sawchuk The St. Catharines Standard

Niagara Regional Council is looking for a handyman to help plug a series of leaks.

For the second time in as many meetings, Port Colborne Coun. David Barrick called for the provincial ombudsman to look into how the media continues to obtain secret information from council's closed-door sessions.

He distributed a spreadsheet with 23 leaks dating back to 2016. Twenty-one were from stories in the St. Catharines Standard.

"It's very clear it is an issue," Barrick said. "It is very clear that this has to stop going into the next term of council.

"I'm not requesting the Ombudsman look at specific individuals. They don't investigate individuals. We know that. There is a problem with the process when after every meeting, certainly this year, there is confidential information going to the local press. It hurts the corporation as a whole, which translates to hurting taxpayers, and that's my concern."

Council rejected Barrick's motion to call in the ombudsman. Instead councillors voted 22-1 to ask University of Western Ontario Professor Andrew Sancton to look into the issue as part of his governance review that is already underway.

Barrick took issue with an editorial in The St. Catharines Standard on Sept. 4 titled "Witch Hunts Won't Restore Trust in the Region."

The editorial reminded the public that without The Standard's dogged pursuit of the facts, they might never have known about the tainted process for hiring the chief administrative officer — or the extension of his contract without council approval. Those issues are far more harmful to the Region's reputation than factual information disclosed to the press, the editorial said.

"Thanks for the editorial; thanks for your opinion, local media," Barrick said. "Of course, they don't want you to look into it. Keep it coming. Keep it coming. That's not to the benefit of residents. That's not to the benefit of taxpayers. It's to the benefit of the local press, and they are not always aligned."

Fort Erie Mayor Wayne Redekop said he agreed with many of Barrick's comments and that the leaks reflect poorly on the Region.

"The difficulty I have concerning the motion is the parameters," Redekop said. "I don't know that it is helpful to the ombudsman to say ... here are some examples. You do the rest of the work.

"I don't know the ombudsman is going to do that."

Welland Coun. Paul Grenier said while council definitely needs a refresher course on confidential information, he couldn't support calling in the ombudsman.

"All this does is throw gasoline on the fire and exacerbate the sometimes toxic relationship we have between each other," Grenier said. "This smacks of trying to uncover those that are responsible in a 'witch hunt' kind of way. Whether that's the intent or not, that's what some people may be looking for."

Thorold Coun. Henry D'Angela said part of the problem is council holds some discussions behind closed doors that should take place in open session.

"We need another set of eyes to look at some of the things we discuss in-camera," he said. "The clerk's office should play a greater role in deciding what takes place in closed session, and what is in open session."

St. Catharines Coun. Bruce Timms said he had lost all confidence in the confidentiality of anything discussed in-camera at Regional meetings.

"I don't blame the press," Timms aid. "They are very proud of the sources they have. Their job is to deal with the information they get. I don't imagine the leaks are comprehensive. They seem to be very selective."

"The other part of the problem is that the leak has no consequences."

"I think we do need to go to the ombudsman. We may need to narrow the list, but I think the public will only have confidence in what a provincial officer has to say."

Timms was the lone councillor to vote against turning the matter over to Sancton.

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Last Modified: September 17, 2018 05:59 PM
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