Late Tuesday night/early Tuesday morning, a vote was held on whether city/taxpayer funds will be used to cover legal fees incurred during the Ontario Ombudsman’s investigation of certain members of Council for their pre-budget lunch at the Harmony Grand Buffett. It’s covered by am980 and the Free Press here and here and by Philip McLeod (@philipmcleod) here.
Shortly after the am980 article was posted onto Twitter, the Ombudsman (@Ont_Ombudsman) himself responded. In a series of Tweets, he said:
Why would anyone need to be accompanied by a lawyer in the first place is baffling/We investigate 18,000 complaints abt the prov gov’t. Can’t remember a case where an official brought in a lawyer to the interview/Our municipal investigs of closed mtgs leads to recommendations only. That’s the worst case scenario. No criminal or civil liability./ Oh and another thing. As a rule, lawyers r not allowed at interviews in any event.
The public reaction to the news has been varied.
Some believe that council members should be allowed legal counsel, possibly without understanding that it isn’t a criminal/legal investigation. Others point to this fact that it is an investigation without “teeth” as a reason to question the process, and still others question why this kind of investigation is happening in the 21st century with so many others means of communicating outside public scrutiny. Councillor Henderson (one of the members of the lunch meeting, and the member of council that put forward the motion that legal council would be paid by the city) has even suggested the complaints to the Ombudsman were made by “sore losers” after key budget votes didn’t go their way.
I continue to question the appropriateness of the meeting. As I stated in earlier posts, there seems to be confusion over whether city/budget business was discussed at the meeting – Councillor D. Brown has said that it was only a friendly meeting between colleagues, while Councillor Henderson said that they did discuss the budget, including the contentious cut to the contribution to the affordable housing reserve fund. As well, Philip McLeod points out in his article a catch-22 seems to now be before us, as the group that were at the lunch (plus ward 3 councillor Swan and my councillor for ward 2, Bill Armstrong) feel legal counsel paid by taxpayers should be provided, despite the fact that those at the lunch did nothing wrong. So, are they innocent, or are we paying for their defense of a meeting they knew shouldn’t have happened? Councillor Joni Baechler voiced similar thoughts:
I would say taxpayers should be outraged they would be paying for councillors to hire a lawyer over a private luncheon they had that wasn’t sanctioned by council. And why would they feel they need a lawyer unless there was city business being discussed?
So, where do I stand? I firmly believe in the office’s mandate of accountability, transparency and ethical behavior – the question is, are these objectives best being served by the current system? I’m not under any illusions that members of council have other methods of meeting/conversing including in e-mails not available to the public, so does 6 of them meeting together before a budget really matter?
It’s all about accountability. I completely understand that there are means at Council’s disposal to behave in an opaque manner, including discussing business via e-mail. In no way do I want to discourage discussion between council members, or see the Ombudsman’s office used for personal reasons. My hope is that council will take larger steps to meet openly and collectively, and be more aware of the responsibility every member has to represent their constituents and meet/discuss/debate with every member of the council. My hope is that we will see much more openness, from every member.
Is this investigation reasonable? If nothing else, the fact that the Ombudsman is investigating this event speaks for itself, though some believe that the decision was made frivolously. As I wrote in a previous post:
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.
Because of this, and because his office operates as a disinterested third party, I think the Ombudsman should be able to investigate other levels of the public sector outside of City Council.
On Sunday April 8, the Toronto Star published an opinion piece by Mr. Marin on his office’s responsibilities, and how, unlike the ombudsman in many other provinces, he isn’t responsible for complaints made about hospitals, and must therefore turn them away; in the fiscal year that just ended, his office turned away 375 complaints. As noted previously, the Ombudsman’s website has a chart showing his office’s responsibilities as they compare to those in other provinces. In my view, Mr. Marin makes a convincing argument for greater oversight into the public sector of Ontario, especially as such a move may be cost-neutral based on how efficiently the Ombudsman’s office operates, as well as the fact such a move may help him identify inefficiencies/shortcomings in our public system and help it run more smoothly, with greater citizen satisfaction.
In the end…yes, it’s a citizen engagement issue. Philip McLeod concludes his article with this:
For the record, the Ombudsman has no power in this matter beyond writing a report that says what the Harmony Six did over lunch was wrong or it wasn’t. No one goes to jail, loses his or her seat, gets his or her knuckles rapped or has to stand in the corner. They should, but they don’t. In thousands of interviews the Ombudsman’s office has conducted, no one has ever asked for – or needed – a lawyer until now.
Unhappily the Ombudsman has no jurisdiction over the ethical and moral issues this arrogance raises. So it’s up to us, people.
So, so true! In the end, the Ombudsman can only make observations and recommendations. It is ultimately up to us, the electorate, to pay close attention to the actions of our city council, voice our opinions and hold them accountable. This is something I continue to work on, and look forward to the continued challenge of learning about our municipal process and everything happening in our city. This is our home, I want to work to make it the best place it can possibly be. This means getting out into our community and participating in all the great things happening here, and keeping an eye on the people we’ve elected to work in our best interest. I’m excited to be involved, and hope that might see you out in our city too.