News Article regarding Ombudsmen Issue

The following is Keith Gilligan’s News Advertiser article.

Note the choice to go with LAS can be cancelled with 90 days notice and the contract will be reviewed in the fall of 2008.
We will be watching.


AJAX — Complaints about Ajax council holding meetings behind closed doors will be handled by Local Authority Services rather than the provincial Ombudsman’s office.Council voted 4-2 Monday to go with LAS, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, a lobby group for municipalities. The cost of using LAS is $600 over two years, although there could be additional costs of $1,250 a day plus expenses if a complaint is filed and an investigation conducted.

Appointing a closed meeting investigator is one of the new powers included in the recently revised Municipal Act, which lays out how communities must conduct their affairs.

An investigation would be required if someone lodges a complaint over a closed-door meeting a council might hold.

Councils are allowed to hold closed-door meetings for such topics as property, legal or labour relations matters.

Municipalities had until Jan. 1 to decide how to deal with complaints about closed-door meetings. If it hadn’t decided to use LAS, the Ombudsman’s office would have taken over responsibility, at no cost.

Kent Street resident Karem Allen told council it should use the free service offered by the Ombudsman’s office.

“It makes it look worse when you are choosing to spend money instead of a free service, which does not get offered very often. How many consultants work for a town for free” she asked.

“I can’t answer exactly how the Ontario Ombudsman would conduct an investigation, but I can safely say it will be more impartial and a longer arm’s-length” than LAS, Ms. Allen said.

Clerk Marty de Rond said LAS would be “impartial.

“They have many qualified officers. They’ll be fair and neutral. They have a lot of experience, knowing our business.”

He stated the intent of the clerk’s department is to have no complaints, but “we can’t stop anyone from making one.

“There will be some remedies or suggestions. Council may revisit the matter and we’ll do things different as we move forward,” he added. “Any time the law changes, we don’t know the full impact until it’s tested. We don’t want to be the test municipality. We’ll learn as others are tested.”

Wards 1 and 2 Regional Councillor Scott Crawford said, “I do not dispute the abilities, character or credentials of either LAS or the Ombudsman. We may not even use or need them. I have difficulty spending money and never using it or not taking advantage of the free service of the Ombudsman.”

Ward 4 local Councillor Pat Brown supported the LAS option, saying, “We’ll use a company that will deal with issues in a timely manner.”

Voting to use LAS were Mayor Steve Parish and councillors Brown, Colleen Jordan and Joanne Dies, while Couns. Crawford and Shaun Collier were against.

During the general government committee meeting last Thursday, Mr. de Rond said there’s no cost to use the Ombudsman, but added, “We don’t know going down the road if that will be the case.

“The size and scope of our operations, the time we spend in closed session is not excessive,” he added.

Pickering and Oshawa are going to use the Ombudsman, while Whitby and Clarington are going with LAS, he stated.

The staff recommendation suggested a $25 fee to process a request, but councillors felt the amount was too low.

Mr. de Rond said staff originally considered a fee of $125, which is the same amount as an OMB appeal, but if the amount is “too high, it would be seen as an impediment.”

Deputy clerk Blair Labelle said $25 would “cover the cost of administering a complaint if it comes forward.”

Mayor Parish suggested a $125 fee, with $100 being reimbursable “if the complaint has merit.

“If the investigator decides it’s totally without merit, then they don’t get $100 back,” the mayor said. “I think some people will use this routinely as an axe to grind.”