Ombudsman report sparks reactions and emotions

Town Logo Small-webBy Ron Giofu

The provincial Ombudsman’s office has wrapped up its investigation into five meetings it investigated with the town getting cleared in four cases but having a vote called into question in the other.

Mayor Wayne Hurst addressed the matter during Monday night’s council meeting as well as afterward when, in front of reporters, he also got into a verbal confrontation with local resident Jason Lavigne. Lavigne attended the meeting and was attempting to listen to Hurst’s comments to the media when he was approached by Hurst and the two had a brief but spirited exchange. Hurst told reporters prior to the exchange that “these types of allegations take time away from administration” as complaints were found to be “non-existant.”

Ombudsman investigations require staff to compile minutes and agendas and taking them away from other work, he added.

“That is really my biggest concern,” he stated. Hurst said critics do not want him to be mayor but said the town has attracted investment and improved quality of life for residents. Critics, he added, will “do anything” to stop progress of the town.

“It’s been obvious the last three years,” he claimed.

Lavigne contended this is another investigation by the Ombudsman’s office where the Ombudsman found a violation with the way a meeting was handled. Lavigne denied any suggestion he wants to cast a negative light on the town.

“I love Amherstburg but I don’t like what has happened to it because of the leadership,” he told reporters after his exchange with Hurst.

His strong words against the “defiant” Hurst continued as Lavigne blamed the mayor for the negativity and bad publicity that has occurred in recent years.

“Let’s be honest. He’s going to go down as the worst mayor in Amherstburg’s history,” Lavigne charged.

The Ombudsman’s office investigated five in-camera meetings of town council after receiving an anonymous complaint with those meetings being held Oct. 9, 2012, Nov. 26, 2012, Jan. 21, 2013, March 4, 2013 and March 18, 2013.

The Nov. 26, 2012 meeting had the problematic issue, according to a letter from Ronan O’Leary, an investigator with the Ombudsman’s open meeting law enforcement team. O’Leary noted that five items were discussed during the in-camera session, including a “CAO Update” that resulted in a vote to hire a consultant to advertise for the director of corporate services and director of legislative services positions. O’Leary advised that “no votes are to be taken in closed session unless the vote is on a procedural matter or unless the vote is to provide direction or instructions to a staff member, an agent of the municipality or a person under contract with the municipality.”

The vote to hire the consultant was considered a “substantive vote” which O’Leary stated is not permissible under the Municipal Act.

O’Leary said the vote “constitutes a procedural violation of the Act.” Hurst criticized a recent newspaper article, stating it had “failed to mention” the subject matter fit within the criteria of a closed session and that the report stated that the action would have been acceptable if framed as a direction. He claimed the focus of their article was “placed on one grammatical error.”

The Oct. 9, 2012 meeting was investigated due to the complainant claiming that an organizational restructuring of the town did not need to be discussed behind closed doors and could have been brought out of closed sessions on numerous occasions.

O’Leary concluded council “did receive and discuss information relating to labour relations and employee negotiations as well as discussing and voting on information about a specific employee. The closed meeting record also shows the town solicitor provided legal advice during the meeting.”

While general information was discussed about organizational restructuring, the Ombudsman’s office understood that information was to provide background information and context for the labour relations and other matters being discussed during the closed session. That led O’Leary to conclude that meeting was permitted under the Act. The Jan. 21, 2013 meeting saw the complaint centre around a vote on the composition of the interview panel for the two director positions with it also being alleged there was no reporting back during the public session regarding the panel.

“Based on our review of the minutes and the inquiries our office made, the evidence indicates that the town solicitor was present during the in-camera discussion regarding the interview panel and he provided legal advice on the issue. Therefore, it appears that it was permissible for council to discuss the matter in-camera,” O’Leary’s letter states.

O’Leary did note that while the Ombudsman’s office was unable to substantiate a vote had taken place in-camera, the office was advised that informal votes – or “straw votes” – sometimes do happen during closed sessions and warned those votes are not permitted and advised council to only hold votes in accordance to requirements in the Municipal Act.

Hurst denied any “straw votes” taking place, saying “that never happened whatsoever.”

The March 4 meeting saw a complaint stem from a “director update” with no reporting to the public at the regular meeting later in the evening although it did occur March 18. Three votes taken in that session fit the rules of the Municipal Act, O’Leary noted, with the meeting focusing on the qualifications of the successful candidates for the director positions.

“As such, the closed meeting discussion fell within the ‘personal matters’ exception to the open meeting requirements,” the letter stated. The claim regarding the March 18 meeting was over the salary of the director of recreation and culture and whether council “improperly discussed and voted” on the matter in-camera. O’Leary’s letter said there was no evidence of a vote in-camera and that discussions regarding the director of recreation and culture fit within the two exceptions the town cited “and therefore, was permissible under the Act.”

Regarding the complaint, the Ombudsman’s office spoke with deputy clerk Paula Parker, director of legislative services/clerk Brenda Percy, Mayor Wayne Hurst and Deputy Mayor Ron Sutherland in addition to receiving agendas, minutes and relevant documents brought by third parties. The Ombudsman’s office reported the town co-operated fully during the review.

Councillor Diane Pouget took exception to the fact the entire council wasn’t interviewed as part of the investigation with her believing the report didn’t contain all the facts. She said the Oct. 9, 2012 meeting contained several points where council could have went into public session while the non-permissible vote occurred Nov. 26, 2012. Pouget contended council “did vote on an interview panel” Jan. 21, 2013 adding that council was “advised on how to vote” March 4 and a vote was taken March 18. “It was an actual vote,” said Pouget, of the March 18 meeting.

“Try and impose your will on the Ombudsman,” Hurst told Pouget.

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