Deputy Mayor’s wish for provincial intervention not shared by town council

 

 

By Ron Giofu

 

Deputy Mayor Ron Sutherland

Deputy Mayor Ron Sutherland

Also, while the province has confirmed it has received Sutherland’s request, it is tight-lipped as to what, if any, next steps will occur and what time frame they will occur in.

Sutherland outlined a number of reasons for his request, some of which were recent revelations about the town’s financial situation.

“Last week, it came out we were charging taxpayers on their water rates for projects that were never completed or even started,” said Sutherland last Friday.

Then, it was learned there was the “misuse” of the gas tax revenues that totalled $1.5 million and Sutherland said that caused him to bring forth his request to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing.

“That just blew me away,” Sutherland said of the gas tax revelation.

Sutherland’s official request is to have a provincial administrator or manager appointed in Amherstburg until the ministry has completed its investigation into the town’s books. He sent his request via e-mail to the ministry last Friday morning and is awaiting word back

“I have no idea if they are coming or not,” he said.

The deputy mayor said there are other issues which make him doubt whether administrative matters are being handled properly, including the media finding out matters pertaining to town financial information before members of council.

“That makes me look stupid and all of council look stupid,” he said.

Sutherland added he isn’t trying to say administration is trying to hide information from council but believed it was time to ask the province to step in and provide assistance. He said he is not certain they step in and run municipalities but based his requests on past interventions the province made when stepping in to run hospitals and school boards.

“Nobody is doing anything so I decided to do something myself,” said Sutherland during Friday’s interview.

At Monday night’s council meeting, Sutherland made a motion to send correspondence to Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Linda Jeffrey requesting information on the process and costs for the province to take over the “monumental financial situation” in Amherstburg.

Sutherland said Monday night he has not heard back from his Friday morning request but understood there would be a hearing on the matter should it proceed with costs to the town if a provincial manager were to come in.

“There has to be evidence Amherstburg can’t raise revenue or pay its debts,” he said, adding there “is no guarantee (the province) will come and do it.”

Sutherland emphasized his motion, which was defeated in a 4-3 vote, was “an inquiry to find out what the costs would be.”

Councillor Carolyn Davies believed a “baseline” charge should have been presented as she added she has a number of questions about provincial intervention, including where the money would come from to pay for it and whether there would be duplication of services.

“We have to have some guidelines of what we want them to do,” she said.

Mayor Wayne Hurst said Sutherland’s e-mail to the province was “unnecessary and irresponsible, in my opinion.”

Hurst said it would be a motion of council, not one member, that would call for the ministry’s assistance.

“One individual doesn’t try and get the ministry here,” he said.

The mayor also accused council members of trying to circumvent notices of motion and bring them up as new business instead. He added that administration is being “blindsided” by some of the requests they don’t have time to prepare for.

Pillon said he understood Sutherland’s concerns but wanted town administration to continue doing its work.

“We’ve got new administration and treasury. We’ve got a new CAO,” said Pillon. “For whatever reason, they keep finding new stuff. We need to let administration complete its job as we directed them to do.”

Pillon added the financial issues can be tackled “a heck of a lot cheaper” than if the province were to come in.

Councillor Diane Pouget said Sutherland was “taking leadership,” something she believed was lacking, a point Hurst said he “certainly disagreed” with.

“He put forward what most of us feel,” she said. “He showed leadership and we are not getting it.”

Pouget said the deputy mayor’s request was simply a query and “at the very least, this is what we should be doing for the residents of Amherstburg.”

Sutton believed the conditions of Sutherland’s motion Monday night didn’t meet the necessary conditions pertaining to the town not creating revenue and not pay its debts.

“Until those conditions are met, it’s a moot point,” he said.

Sutton said the town has committed to a public process in which an audit was requested and where the OPP was called in to investigate. He added the town needs “to let the facts guide the process.”

Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Mike Phipps said last Friday he believed “the minister will presumably take this request seriously and make a decision” but noted he would welcome a provincial appointee.

“However, with the request for an audit, the OPP investigation and a looming budget problem, I’m sure the minister will want to learn from the town’s administration all the details of the issues prior to making a decision,” continued Phipps. “I realize we’re in an election year and all eyes seem to be on Amherstburg.”

Should the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing send in a provincial manager, Phipps said that person would be the sixth CAO during term of council.

“The minister probably would want to review that record too,” he believed.

Phipps suggested that council comes together and leads administration and residents in taking what action is necessary. He said previous audits have been completed by “very qualified” personnel that identified the “unorthodox financial management” that has occurred and found the problems.

As for next steps in the process, how long the process could take and what the status of town-requested audit is, ministry spokesperson Mike Maka stated the province would not comment beyond the acknowledgement of Sutherland’s request.

“I can confirm that our ministry has received a letter from the deputy mayor asking about supervision of the Town of Amherstburg,” stated Maka. “At this time, our ministry is reviewing this letter. However, as this matter is under investigation by the OPP, it would be inappropriate for me to comment further.”

 

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