An NPCA board meeting, 2017. VOICE FILE PHOTO

NPCA board members meet in Welland last Wednesday. NATE SMELLE PHOTO

Hastily called board meeting greeted with skepticism

BY NATE SMELL
The VOICE

A faction of some 50 concerned citizens gathered outside Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA) headquarters in Welland last Wednesday to draw attention to the board’s decision not to accept the Ontario Auditor General’s offer to conduct an independent review of the conservation authority. When the special board meeting began at 10 AM, the demonstrators moved inside to listen to the NPCA’s rationale for not accepting the help from the Province they were apparently seeking. Held in a small room in the basement not nearly large enough to contain even half the crowd, many from the public were forced to follow the proceedings from the hallway or in a room upstairs, where the meeting was being live-streamed.

Though the board approved the tendering of a request for proposals to find an agency to perform a review of the NPCA’s operations between 2011 and 2016, most onlookers in the room doubted the sincerity of the board’s intentions. Regional Councillor and NPCA board member Bill Hodgson was one of the many in attendance disappointed by the RFP approved by his fellow board members. Having originally put forth the motion calling for an independent audit of the NPCA, Hodgson said the objectives and the way the reporting is to be done by the consultant, as defined in the RFP, were contrary to the motion that was passed by the board at its Jan. 18 meeting.

“As a matter of fact, there is a point in the RFP [that] the consultant will attempt to be as independent as possible. For me, the way it seems is that’s code for ‘we know who you report to so don’t forget that,’” stated Hodgson.

“That cuts to the whole commitment we made to the community to have an independent, arms-length, third-party review. So, I have some real concerns that we are not going to get the product that everybody in the room that day in January knew we were looking for — which was an investigation into the concerns that have been raised throughout the community, concerns that have been essentially endorsed by a number of different municipal councils. That is what the review needs to look at and it needs to be reported to all of the board as a whole, not vetted in advance.”

Hodgson said one of the main reasons that the board decided to move ahead with the review was because the public’s trust in the agency had been rattled. Recognizing the importance of regaining the public’s trust and addressing the crisis of confidence in the community, he stated, “If we are going to rebuild public trust, we are going to have to start to answer questions openly and accept an independent assessment of what some of the issues are and then decide. I am quite concerned that we have weaseled-down the language.”

Angered by the phrase, “weaseled down,” board chair Sandy Annunziata said Hodgson’s language was out of order, demanding he withdraw his statement. Expressing that he did not want to offend anyone, Hodgson withdrew his statement indicating that he meant the language used in the RFP significantly watered down the credibility of the review in terms of it being conducted independently.

When Graham affirmed that the independent third-party consultant would report to a steering committee selected by himself and members of the senior management team, Hodgson got a rise out of the gallery when he responded, “Does that not just scream for potential conflicts of interest?” Tensions continued to flare when board member and West Lincoln Mayor, Doug Joyner, threatened to have members of the public removed for not respecting the rules of the procedure.

Visibly shaken, Graham asked the room in jest if anyone wanted to take his spot. Without pause, Ed Smith — the community activist and environmental advocate who was slapped with a lawsuit by the NPCA for raising the concerns that inspired the public’s demand for an independent audit — drew applause from onlookers when he chimed in, “I will.”

Taking a moment to regain his composure, Graham responded, “I take offence that my personal integrity is being called into question. At this point, the acting CAO has the responsibility to fulfill the obligations in the motion that member Hodgson put forward, and I have every intent to do that. To even intimate that somehow, whatever the independent third-party consultant comes up with, that some of it won’t find its way to you, is an insult. I will not allow that to happen. Whatever is found is going to come here and it’s going to be known — good, bad, ugly, I don’t care. I just want this to be done. That’s part of the reason I have been so aggressive in moving it forward.”

Following the meeting, Smith said he empathizes with Graham, acknowledging that the acting CAO is stuck between a rock and a hard place because he lacks the authority to do what he believes the NPCA needs to begin re-establishing the public’s trust. From his perspective, and from that of the growing movement he finds himself representing, all hope of rebuilding confidence in the NPCA under its current leadership is gone.

“This board just needs to go,” declared Smith.

“The overriding message for us is that we do not accept the RFP that was tabled by the NPCA at Wednesday’s meeting. We do not accept it as being arms-length and independent, and therefore it’s not legitimate. We are encouraging our elected officials to come together publicly and stand up against this and start demanding provincial intervention. The province offered to intervene by way of the Auditor General but the NPCA turned it down for some mysterious, unexplainable reason.”

Having applied to the Province for assistance in conducting the review, the NPCA then refused the Auditor General’s offer to do so, asserting that they were not ready to begin the process since they had yet to define the scope of the audit. Speculating on the reasons that the conservation authority would not take the Province’s help, Smith sees only one logical explanation.

“The Auditor General’s reports to nobody but the province, so the NPCA wouldn’t get to see the Auditor General’s report and then [limit or block the] release this or that part,” he said.

“The whole thing would become public, so the NPCA wouldn’t be able to control what the public sees if it’s done by the Auditor General. If it’s done by someone they hire, they get to review it first and they could say well, ‘This is HR matters, therefore we are not going to release it to the public.’ They would get to apply their judgment as to what should be published if they’re paying for a consultant.”

Like Smith, Pelham Mayor Dave Augustyn doesn’t understand why the NPCA would not accept help from the province that they said they were seeking in January.

“It looks terrible on them and unfortunately it further underscores the need for change at that board,” said Augustyn.

“The way in which they are thinking about this raises some very serious concerns about what has gone on at the NPCA. I’m supportive of the Auditor General doing it. I think it’s too bad the Minister doesn’t have the power to do something. It’s really sad that an organization like this, which is supposed to be protecting the environment, supposed to be protecting water and protecting wetlands, protecting endangered species, is embroiled in these issues when really they should be concentrating on all of those things.”

During a conversation with Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk earlier this year, Augustyn said Lysyk told him the reason she informed the Region and the municipalities that they had to take action was that she didn’t have the power to replace the board under current legislation. So far, municipal councils from Pelham, Thorold, Welland, Wainfleet ,Niagara-on-the-Lake, St. Catharines, Port Colborne, Niagara Falls, and Hamilton have called for an independent audit of the NPCA. Referencing the motion approved by Pelham Council, Augustyn said it was ironic that NPCA chair Annunziata doubted that qualified, independent citizens would be fiscally responsible, considering the current board’s decision to burden taxpayers with the cost of the audit, when the Auditor General offered to absorb the cost and responsibility.

Augustyn said he became concerned with the current state of the NPCA when he learned of the board’s decision to place board members Carmen D’Angelo and David Barrick into senior management positions at the authority. This was the moment the Mayor took a step back and said, “Hey, what’s going on here.”

“Board members are there to steer the organization, to provide policy and overall direction. It would be unfathomable to have a member of Council step off Council and then get hired by Council to do a job. That’s unbelievable.”

Augustyn is not the only politician calling for change at the NPCA.

Members of provincial parliament in Niagara, including the NDP’s Cindy Forster and Wayne Gates, along with Liberal Jim Bradley and Conservative Sam Oosterhoff, have also been calling for an independent audit of the authority.