Watchdog’s purview expands to include university, city hall (The London Free Press)

Watchdog’s purview expands to include university, city hall (The London Free Press)

January 24, 2016

24 January, 2016

If you’ve got a beef with Western University or city hall, you’ve got a new go-to place to turn.

Kate Dubinski
The London Free Press
January 24, 2016

If you’ve got a beef with Western University or city hall, you’ve got a new go-to place to turn.

Its turf expanded, the office of Ontario’s ombudsman is now also a place of last resort for complaints involving universities and municipalities, in addition to the provincial government for which it already provides oversight, and civic councils whose open-meetings law it polices.

The citizen watchdog is no stranger to London. Under outspoken former ombudsman Andre Marin, two off-site gatherings of politicians by the last city council were investigated amid complaints they’d broken Ontario’s open-meetings law for civic government.

One gathering at Billy T’s eatery Marin delcared an illegal secret meeting, noting those who attended it hurriedly left — “a reaction somewhat like lifting a rocking and seeing all the insects kind of scatter,” he said — when The Free Press got wind of the meeting and sent a reporter.

Five politicians at that gathering who sought re-election in 2014 were turfed in the largest turnover in modern council history.

Marin served 10 years until his last term expired. Former deputy Barbara Finlay is serving as acting ombudsman until the post is filled.

Universities and municipalities were put under the ombdusman’s watch this month, and school boards were rolled into its turf last fall — all part of a move by the Liberal government to increase accountability and transparency in Ontario’s vast public sector.

“We are not an advocate for the complainant and we are not a rubber stamp for the institutions we’re investigating,” Finlay said. “We are an objective, independent third party that can look at a situation or problem through a different lens.”

Though more than 250 complaints have come in about school boards since September, no formal complaints have been launched. Many dealt with busing, special-education delivery and discipline issues, Finlay said.

Ontario’s 21 public universities and 444 municipalities will add work to the office, which is hiring 50 new staff, including investigators, early-resolution officers and legal staff.

Even though it hasn’t had universities or municipalities under its watch until now, the office last year fielded 72 complaints about universities and more than 1,650 about municipalities.

Since its creation in the 1970s, there’d been persistent calls to expand the ombudsman’s turf to include the so-called MUSH sector — municipalities, universities, school boards and hospitals.

For hospitals, the Liberals decided instead to appoint a new patient ombudsman who will also deal with complaints about long-term care facilities.

Ontario cities and universities have a mish-mash of their own ombudsmen.

At Western University, for example, the ombudsman deals with complains from students. At the University of Toronto, the ombudsman deals with faculty, staff and student complains. At Laurier University, there is no ombudsman.

“The more eyes on policies and process at large public institutions, the better,” said Jennifer Meiser, who has been Western’s ombudsman since August 2015.