As problematic as closed meeting investigations by AMO’s LAS investigators might be, this might pale in comparison to the potential consequences if Durham’s current plans to create the position of regional ombudsperson reporting to regional council come to pass.
As per the staff Report 2015-A-26, section 2.7: “The Ontario Ombudsman remains the default closed meeting investigator if a municipality does not have its own investigator.”
The Ontario Ombudsman has already articulated concerns about municipalities engaging in “oversight shopping.”
How “independent” could a regional ombudsperson be if they are having to investigate his/her political masters on council, a.k.a. his/her employers? What if the ombudsperson had to investigate staff colleagues? “Difficult” investigations could get bogged down. In short, would a regional ombudsperson really be able to do their job in a manner that best serves the public interest?
Durham officials like to talk a lot about accountability and transparency. However, when it came to tough decisions about their troubled incinerator, the majority on Durham council voted to batten down the hatches and shut the public out not once, but twice.
The ability to hold municipal officials to account increases when investigations are conducted by an independent arms-length entity such as the provincial ombudsman, who is funded by provincial taxpayers.
A regional report on the proposed regional ombudsperson, as well as reports on a council code of conduct and integrity commissioner, is expected on the finance and administration committee’s agenda before the end of June if the timelines in Reports 2015-A-40 and 41 are met. Public input will be critical. Watch also for a Council Procedure By-law update.
As bad as the public accountability and transparency deficits at Durham Region are now, if residents don’t pay attention and respond to what is being proposed, things could get a lot worse.