Yesterday the long-awaited Ontario Ombudsman’s report was released, available here to read.
The statement released with the report simply says “The Ombudsman found that London councillors did not violate the Municipal Act when they met in camera to discuss the ‘Occupy London’ protest last November.” The Ombudsman, Andre Marin, did make a couple recommendations that would further aid transparency, however, including providing information sooner (expressing concern over “the last-minute addition of the Occupy London matter to the in camera meeting agenda”), and adding express reference in the city’s Procedure By-Law for requirement of public notice, which is currently missing.
After the anticipation surrounding the report (as mentioned here), so much so that the City reportedly started to receive Freedom of Information requests as soon as it became known that the report was about to be released.
Citizens and at least one member of Council have said that these investigations are petty and are a waste of resources. “I think it was a massive waste of taxpayers money at the provincial and municipal level,” Councillor Orser said. “There has to be accountability for people who make complaints.” Responding to the report, Mayor Fontana said “He [Andre Marin] did make a couple of suggestions as to how to better inform the public, at probably an earlier time. So I am happy to see we were put to the test and came out not too bad.”
This is the first of two investigations opened in London in the last 6 months, the second concerning the lunch 6 members of Council had together before the contentious budget session last month. Concerning that second investigation, some have accused those complaining of being “sore losers” concerning the budget decisions, which were mostly approved or denied on an 8-7 vote. Last night Councillor Orser commented “I’m concerned [the Ombudsman’s office] could become a retaliatory weapon for people who don’t like council’s decisions,”. Mayor Fontana doesn’t seem concerned about those that c0mplained or the process, however, stating “People are free to say they agree with council, or don’t agree. I don’t think there is anything appeal-able with this report. Although I am sure there are some people who won’t be satisfied with what the Ombudsman said.”
My immediate response wasn’t surprise at the content, so much as the scale. I realized as I read that the subject was only the closed meeting session. I had the impression it may cover more of the overarching issues surrounding Occupy London and the eviction, partially because of community issues addressed by this Free Press article, shared on the Ombudsman’s site. Those issues mentioned include:
- Politicians may have broken, or at least bent, Municipal Act rules by making the decision behind closed doors unnecessarily.
- Politicians appeared to be playing loose with the Police Services Act by authorizing officers to help take the camp apart, a move rejected three times in the past under similar circumstances in London.
- Two secret votes have smothered dissenting voices from council and blocked the public’s understanding of the reasons behind the decision.
- Council seems to have forgotten an expensive lesson from the Supreme Court of Canada, which warned London in 2007 that municipalities cannot routinely work in secrecy
- Council also seems to be ignoring the Ontario Ombudsman’s Sunshine Handbook to guide municipal governments through the perils of closed-door meetings, which cites the court decision.
I feel as if since this investigation started, I and many others in London dug in to learn more about the Ontario Ombudsman, the person, office and function. In my own research, I’ve become convinced of Mr. Marin’s professionalism as well as the impartiality of the office he holds, and that we can trust that the conclusions the Ombudsman makes are those of a disinterested third party. We can disagree with the conduct of our Council, but not the verdict the Ombudsman draws about that conduct.
I am also convinced that the Ombudsman doesn’t enter an investigation lightly. In both this now-concluded investigation as well as the one that has just been launched, an initial probe was performed to decide if further inquiry was needed. We have this service in place to investigate events where there is reasonable doubt as to the transparency of Council. I believe from what I have read and learned that Mr. Marin would never allow his office to be used as a political weapon, despite suggestions made by Councillor Orser.