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Regional ombudsman one step closer

By Graeme McNaughton/The Oshawa Express

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The Region of Durham is looking into obtaining their own ombudsman to add an additional level of scrutiny. (Oshawa Express file photo).

Durham Region is inching closer toward having its own ombudsman.

Councillors in the region’s finance and administration committee approved the recommendation to go forward with putting out a request for proposals (RFP) to fill the position.

Matt Gaskell, the region’s commissioner of corporate services, tells The Oshawa Express that if the recommendation is then passed by regional council at its meeting today, Dec. 16, an RFP will be put out early next year, with plans to have a recommendation for whom would take the helm of the office going back to council by the end of June.

Gaskell says the new position will be another level of scrutiny that the public could use should it have complaints about the region.

“That position will be modeled after the office in other municipalities and it will report to council, and we’ll set up procedures in order for it to investigate public complaints which have otherwise gone through our internal complaint processes,” he says. “If the public is still not satisfied, there will be this process that they can utilize.”

Gaskell adds that should the motion be passed by council, the region will be reaching out to the local municipalities to see if they would like to use the ombudsman office as well.

The region is installing its own ombudsman due in part to Bill 8, which in part amends the Ombudsman Act to give the provincial ombudsman more oversight powers over municipalities to deal with complaints. Under the new changes that come into effect Jan. 1, the provincial ombudsman becomes the de facto ombudsman for any municipality that does not have one of its own.

Currently, the only Ontario municipality with an ombudsman is Toronto, although others such as York Region, Halton Region and Burlington are currently in the process of obtaining their own.

Earlier this year, when the proposal for an ombudsman for the region was first brought up, Gaskell said 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.”

Speaking at the finance and administration committee, Councillor Nancy Diamond spoke in favour of the recommendation, saying have an ombudsman at a local level would ensure faster response times in addressing complaints.

“A local ombudsman, regional or regional and including any of the lower-tier municipalities would speed things up,” she said. “When a citizen makes a complaint provincially, it can be a year and a half, two years before an answer comes back, and from the taxpayer’s perspective, first of all they don’t think they’re being listened to, and secondly, I look at the money that’s being wasted, that it takes that long and all that staff to be able to investigate something.”