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More oversight at region

Durham may get its own ombudsman in light of new provincial rules

By Graeme McNaughton/The Oshawa Express

Durham is looking at getting some investigative oversight.

In a report unanimously passed by the region’s finance and administration committee, staff will now be researching the feasibility of appointing an ombudsman for the region.

The same report also calls for “the establishment of a code of conduct for the regional council and the appointment of an integrity commissioner to administer the code of conduct and conduct inquiries.”

“It’s in light in passage of Bill 8, which amends the Ombudsman Act to give the Ontario ombudsman some oversight powers over municipalities to deal with complaints and that sort of thing,” Matthew Gaskell, the region’s commissioner of corporate services and the report’s author, tells The Oshawa Express.

Under the changes, which come into effect Jan. 1, the provincial ombudsman would become the de facto ombudsman for any municipality that does not have one of its own.

However, even if Durham were to appoint an ombudsman of its own, that doesn’t mean the provincial counterpart won’t have a role in the region.

“The office of the provincial ombudsman can review the investigation or the complaint which has been investigated by a municipal ombudsman, but the review tends to more scoped toward whether the investigation by the municipal ombudsman was satisfactory,” Gaskell says.

The reason to appoint a municipal ombudsman, rather than saving money by having the provincial counterpart as the de facto ombudsman, stems back to 2006.

“When the province amended the Municipal Act to put in these various accountability measures, one of which was that of a closed meeting investigator,” Gaskell says of the 2006 legislation, which includes a provision stating councils are only to go into closed-door sessions for specific reasons. “Municipalities had to set up a complaint process for members of the public who are not happy with a (potentially improper) closed session. So either the municipality could set up their own, or the provincial ombudsman became the de facto investigator.

“So it’s analogous in many ways to the current situation…the vast majority of municipalities have actually appointed their own closed door investigators, rather than having the provincial ombudsman do those closed door investigations, and my suspicion is that most municipalities will do the same vis a vie ombudsman investigations. It would be better to have some control over who’s doing the investigation and ideally having someone who is familiar with the working of municipal government and the legislation than someone whose primary focus is more the provincial level.”

Currently, Toronto is the only municipality in the province with its own ombudsman although, according to the regional report, other municipalities are looking at appointing their own ahead of the new rules coming into effect.

Gaskell says under his proposal, the region will look at having Durham’s ombudsman available to municipal matters as well as regional ones.

“We’re going to be investigating whether or not the area municipalities would want to share with us or utilize the municipal ombudsman, if council decides to appoint one,” he says. “It would save costs and engender that Durham Region knowledge.”

Gaskell says the report is set to come to regional council in October and, with approval, would like to have an ombudsman in place before the end of the year.