Why are some local Governments not open to a little oversight and others more accepting?

Bill 8, the Public Sector and MPP Accountability and Transparency Act, was reintroduced this July 2014 by the Ontario Government, and would give the Ontario Ombudsman’s office oversight over municipalities, school boards and universities – also known as the MUSH sector.

The act would also:

• Toughened penalties for destroying public records.

• Ordered numerous public officials to post their expense claims online routinely.

• Expanded oversight of public bodies by increasing the powers of Ombudsman André Marin to handle complaints about municipalities, universities and school boards. The oversight of municipalities will include all the different boards within the cities, for example the police services board.

• Created a separate patient ombudsman for hospitals.

While provincial legislators and bureaucrats have faced the scrutiny of the ombudsman, local governments have been able to avoid such accountability by hiring (and often firing) their own ombudsman while all the time having full control of the report results.

“Municipal government is notoriously unaccountable. It spends $3.5 billion in provincial funds plus it collects its own funds and it’s only accountable every four years,” André Marin, Ontario Ombudsman told the Toronto Sun recently. “Nothing happens in between.”

There are arguments from some that municipal government is far more accountable, with open debates resolving issues rather than the closed-door meetings that other levels of Government do. Some local politicians, such as Ottawa’s Mayor Jim Watson said in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen that “voters in city elections and council-appointed integrity officials provide enough oversight for them and having to answer to Marin as well would be confusing and wasteful.”

However, Ontario Ombudsman André Marin, via the Toronto Sun, noted that “…local level of government affects you the most” Marin says we may be focused on world issues but that they are a “very remote kind of issue” he says. “When you’re talking about nuclear waste buried in your yard, that kind of hits home. You kind of want to be involved in the discussion.”“We will be there to reinforce democracy to make sure that the little guy can have a chance against city hall, to hold city hall accountable in between elections.”

In Canada’s Largest City, Toronto’s ombudsman Fiona Crean, applaudes the government for its accountability legislation, but she is “very concerned” about what it will mean for residents citing the proposed set up could create confusion and duplication.“De facto, what we have in Toronto now is two ombudsmen,” Crean told the National Post “It’s not about me, it’s about serving the public. I believe it is a very confusing scheme to have two ombudsman in one jurisdiction. Are we saying that the provincial ombudsman will look after the woman who had 17 sewer backups, or potholes?”

Local politicians and Ombudsman’s should be reassured that Bill 8 would, if passed, only allow the Ontario Ombudsman to intervene and investigate if there is no local ombudsman in place, if he or she refuses to look into a complaint or if the deadline for launching a complaint with the local ombudsman has passed. If a complaint is groundless or has been dealt with properly, there will be no reason to worry about the involvement of the Ombudsman’s office.

Having this extra layer of oversight will allow citizens a way to appeal a decision by their local Ombudsman (if they have one). Right now, citizens have no where to turn other than costly court cases. They have to “suck it up: and take the answer staff or others give as is. This bill would give the public a last line of defence, a central place to appeal via the Ontario Ombudsman Office.

If we can appeal judgments within our Court system, then why can’t we do that for overseeing the $3.5 billion in citizen-taxpayers dollars spent each year locally?

In Guelph, this would easily apply to many situations that have arised. For example Grassroots Guelph was asking for a forensic audit and received a so-so response from both Ontario Government and City Hall as well as City’s own Internal auditor (We do not have a Municipal Ombudsman only an Integrity Commissioner). Having the Ombudsman Office as a last resort, it would allow Grassroots Guelph concerns to be investigated without biased or political gamesmanship that the local level could easily impose. Then you would get a clear answer if the concerns of the group were legit or not. No harm in that right?

We need much more municipal transparency and accountability. We have seen different municipalities and others spend tens of thousands on “personal” expenses with little outcourse – see Brampton for example.

The legislation comes in the wake of years of public demonstrations, rallies and calls, since 1979 by Ontario’s first Ombudsman, to expand Ombudsman oversight to all or part of the MUSH sector. Since 2005, there have been more than 130 petitions and 15 private member’s bills tabled in the legislature to this effect, supported by members of all parties.

This isn’t rocket science. Ontario is the last province in Canada to open this sector to Ombudsman oversight. All other provinces have moved to extend the jurisdiction of their ombudsmen to these levels of government and organizations. Municipalities and officials who conduct themselves properly have nothing to worry about. It is a strong step toward a more democratic, accountable and open Ontario and should be supported by all groups in the MUSH sector including Guelph.

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