Province, cops to take a closer look at the town’s finances

 

 

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By Ron Giofu

 

In a reversal of what happened two months ago, town council has now agreed to have their finances audited and is asking the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH) to lead it.

It was also revealed Tuesday afternoon that the Ontario Provincial Police are conducting an investigation into the town’s financial situation.

Town council voted unanimously to proceed with a ministry-led audit during Monday night’s meeting. Council did so after a lengthy debate which began when they allowed local resident Jason Lavigne to address them despite Lavigne not being on the agenda.

Lavigne has helped organize a petition that had over 400 signatures and the potential for more as he said over 110 people had called his home looking to sign it since last weekend.

“You all know why I’m here,” Lavigne told council. “I’m not here to make accusations or blame anyone here.”

Lavigne said only 50 signatures are required to request the province step in and conduct an audit but the initial 400 were gathered without much effort.

“There’s definitely a lot of people in Amherstburg who want to see it done,” he said, adding he hoped council “all come to your senses and see it too.”

Lavigne believed a lot of money was spent without common sense adding that he wanted “concrete answers” about what exactly went wrong with the town’s financial picture.

“I think we need to figure out what happened here,” said Lavigne.

Saying the media is “having a field day” with this story, he said he wanted to see town council get to the bottom of the matter by going forward with an audit with those results being public.

“I just want to get it over with,” said Lavigne.

Lavigne told the River Town Times last Friday and re-iterated Monday night he wanted to give council a chance to request an audit themselves.

“I want to give them the opportunity,” he said last Friday. “I am not accusing them of doing anything illegal. I am accusing them of bad management practices, bad leadership and ignoring the problem.”

Lavigne said other residents, naming Del Oxford and John McDonald, have assisted with the petition. He added that while some think his goals are politically motivated, he is doing this out of a love for the town.

Councillor Bob Pillon said it was the Dec. 17 pre-budget meeting where town council found out the severity of the town’s books. Pillon had voted against an audit at the Nov. 18 meeting along with councillors John Sutton and Carolyn Davies as well as Mayor Wayne Hurst.

“Things have changed since our last meeting,” said Pillon. “My feeling is I want to know who is responsible.”

Davies said she “wants to get to the bottom of this,” adding it was when the Texas Road project was put on hold that things started to be uncovered.

“That’s when the can of worms opened up,” she said. “It uncovered a whole bunch of inside issues that have been going on for a long time.”

Davies believed it should have been caught sooner but was concerned about how much time an audit would take away from the finance department, saying they were “up to their ying-yang” with work.

“The bottom line is we have to get to the bottom of it,” she said.

Councillor John Sutton said there has been a lot of “anger” and “confusion” since the Dec. 17 meeting. He said he didn’t want to spend money to find out “the same answers” but stated a “more thorough investigation needs to be done.”

Calling the Texas Road deferral “a watershed moment,” he said no one on council is against cutting spending. He said a motion to reduce spending by five percent by each department was something that council “couldn’t deliver on.”

“I think we should move to a deeper level audit,” he said. “We’ve got to begin tonight putting Amherstburg first.”

Sutton introduced his “five-point plan” as a motion to address the situation, including calling for an immediate enquiry conducted by an accredited forensic auditor to identify the causes of the current financial situation and that council to be provided the costs and scope of any proposed review and/or necessary audits (forensic or other) during the RFP process, the implementation of policies and procedures to prevent a re-occurrence, to investigate the legality of using public funds such as the Ranta Park donation and employee benefits contributions for purposes other than which they were designated, to utilize savings in 2014 insurance premiums to restore the Ranta Park donation and employee benefits contributions and to develop a plan to replenish all reserves and development charges with the least impact on the tax rate.

That motion was withdrawn by Sutton after council members expressed problems with it.

Sutton said he has spoken to many residents since the full scope of the town’s financial challenges was revealed Dec. 17 and “common themes” became evident.

“Our residents are upset, angry and they want answers.  I share their concerns and their emotions,” stated Sutton. “People want to know how this happened, if there was anything done illegally, and what council is going to do to fix the problem.”

“I just can’t sit here and listen to this rhetoric,” responded Councillor Diane Pouget.

Pouget said herself, Councillor Bart DiPasquale and Deputy Mayor Ron Sutherland have been thwarted from getting answers they sought since the beginning of the term on financial matters.

“We’ve been trying to get to the bottom of this for three years,” she said.

DiPasquale’s motion Nov. 18 requested an audit but Pouget noted the other four council members were opposed at the time. She believed the only revelation that came out Dec. 17 was that the reserves are now depleted and said council received information as far back as October that there were serious issues with the town’s finances.

“This could have been done in October if you had seen the light then,” she said.

DiPasquale believed going to the province would hasten the process. Sutherland agreed, noting he had spoken with Ministry of Municipal Affairs officials who stated a motion of council would be required to have them come in and study the town’s books.

Sutherland said he had a 30-minute conference call with MMAH officials two weeks ago with the officials telling him they were “very much aware of the issues in Amherstburg.

“They are ready, locked and loaded to come here,” he said.

Sutherland added that former director of corporate services Val Sequeira had met with ministry officials in London to voice numerous concerns but “that never got to fruition because he is no longer with us.”
Sequeira, along with human resources manager Carol Bendo and director of engineering and infrastructure Lou Zarlenga, were let go by the municipality in October.

Pouget added she too has been in contacted the province and she received similar information to that of the deputy mayor.

“We owe it to ourselves and we owe it to our constituents,” Pouget said, of having a provincial government-driven audit.

Tuesday afternoon’s announcement by the Amherstburg Police Service saw Chief Tim Berthiaume state that he requested the OPP in December to conduct an investigation “into possible wrongdoing with the financial affairs of the Town of Amherstburg.”

Berthiaume said he contacted the OPP to step in to avoid any conflict of interest issues or any possible perceived conflict of interest issues.

“At this time we can confirm that the OPP has agreed to conduct an investigation and will report back to the appropriate authorities once the investigation is complete,” said Berthiaume in a press release.

OPP Sgt. Dave Rektor confirmed Tuesday afternoon they have agreed to investigate into “possible criminal wrongdoing within the municipal office of the Town of Amherstburg.”

Rektor noted they received Berthiaume’s request and that the OPP agreed to take on the investigation Tuesday and it will be undertaken by the OPP’s anti-racket branch.

“Our investigators will begin with the investigation into this,” he said. “Once we complete our investigation, we’ll report to the Chief of Police with our report back.”

Rektor said it will be an “exhaustive investigation of the facts” and didn’t put a timeline on how long the investigation will last. He said there are sensitivities around the investigation but they will follow the evidence and lay charges, if warranted.

“It’s going to be a very thorough investigation,” said Rektor.

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