Ball's Falls. NPCA

Ontario Auditor General notes positive progress

When Chandra Sharma was hired by the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA) in January of 2020, board chair Dave Bylsma was effusive in his praise for the new CAO and secretary-treasurer, citing her experience in governance, operations, and program development.

Fresh leadership was desperately needed by the organization, which had been criticized in a 2018 report by Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk as having significant operational issues and an overstepping board. Lysyk said that it was critical for the NPCA to “restore public trust and deliver its programs and services economically, efficiently and effectively.”

Chandra Sharma. SUPPLIED

Last week, Sharma released a summary report of her first year at the helm of NPCA, entitled “Reflections on 2020 – A Year of Change, Resilience, and Progress,” which asserted that the Authority is back on track, despite the challenges of a year of pandemic.

“When I was hired, I was told by the board that one of the most important things I have to do is take care of the staff,” said Sharma. “NPCA has a very talented, professional, and committed group of people, many who have been here for a very long time. Some are third-generation staffers.”

She made it a priority to personally meet with each NPCA employee. And despite the unprecedented challenges of COVID in 2020, Sharma said that the organization did not lay off a single staffer.

“It was important for me to learn about who I’m working with, their backgrounds and aspirations,” said Sharma. “I can tell you that it’s a very resilient team of people. And they love what they do—it’s a very positive conservation authority culture.”

Sharma began her career at the Toronto & Region Conservation Authority, and over the past 20 years has moved progressively to more senior roles in watershed management and strategy.

She holds masters degrees in both international relations and environmental studies, along with a public management certificate.

“We were innovating and charting new territory every day last year, developing pandemic procedures and policies on the go, and keeping our staff morale top-of-mind. The pressure to keep parks and green spaces available to our communities was huge, and our frontline workers really responded,” she said.

The Auditor General’s office conveyed to us that they were pleased with the progress NPCA has made in a short period of time

Key highlights from 2020 included the preparation and delivery of a clean financial audit, and action on recommendations made the previous year by Lysyk.

“The Auditor General’s office conveyed to us that they were pleased with the progress NPCA has made in a short period of time,” said Sharma, adding, “these things take time to be done right, and with proper consultation.”

Sharma said that the organization was financially stable, and efforts were underway to build strong relationships with municipal partners. She also underscored the progress made by the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Foundation (NPCF) as it works at creating a long-term plan to provide critical support for the NPCA.

2021 will be an important year for the NPCA, and will involve completion of a strategic plan that will be the organization’s roadmap for the next five years. The Ford government’s controversial Bill 229 has required that the NPCA update all of its policies and budget, said Sharma.

The Province approved Bill 229, Ontario’s Budget Measures Act, last December, despite prominent resignations and opposition to the environmental changes by individuals and organizations across the province. Conservation Ontario, the agency that represents Ontario’s 36 conservation authorities, said that the new legislation will allow the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to force a conservation authority to issue a permit even if it conflicts with their responsibility to protect the environment.

The new law also prevents conservation authorities from making appeals to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT), and includes a number of other changes that limit the powers of conservation authorities.

“I think Bill 229 was a partial win for conservation authorities, because we asked for several changes, and we made some inroads, we found the middle ground. We’ll have to see how the regulations play out,” said Sharma.

Sharma said that the NPCA has a strong board at present, which “brings a diverse set of skills, are very supportive of staff, and work together really well.”

Pelham Regional Councillor and NPCA board member Diana Huson echoed the good news at the NPCA, which is tasked with overseeing the Niagara Peninsula watershed, and manages conservation, restoration, and development across 41 properties. “Our new CAO had to shut down the office a mere three months after her arrival due to the pandemic, move operations online, and create a digital work environment that simply didn’t exist previously, in addition to meeting the organization’s customer service commitments and important reporting functions,” said Huson. “When you reflect on all of these things, the challenges in her first months were extraordinary. And yet the organization has excelled.”

Huson said that despite COVID challenges in 2020, NPCA parks stayed open and experienced record-breaking numbers, while maintaining essentials standards of health and safety for both staff and guests.

“I believe our parks benefited from a renewed appreciation of our outdoor natural spaces, and also a focus on the benefits these spaces provide to our overall health and wellbeing,” Huson said.

Continuity of NPCA’s restoration program was also a success, according to Huson. Restoration grants are available to homeowners, NGOs, and non-profits to help restore and improve water quality, wildlife habitat, and forest cover across the Niagara watershed. “It’s encouraging to see that a number of grants were issued across Pelham last year, which means that work is being done in our community to help enhance our local ecosystem and greenspaces,” said Huson. “It’s great to see Pelham, and our natural features, benefitting by this important program.”

Huson is proud of the way that the NPCA has “rallied and adapted” over the past year. “I attribute this to a very capable leader, and also a dedicated team of professional staff. There’s more progress to be made, and I’m confident we have a team that can achieve it.”