Watchdog starts New Year with new powers (Parry Sound North Star)

Watchdog starts New Year with new powers (Parry Sound North Star)

January 20, 2016

20 January, 2016

This year, the New Year will not only ring in resolutions, it will also welcome a bigger watchdog.

Paige Phillips
Parry Sound North Star
January 20, 2016

ONTARIO – This year, the New Year will not only ring in resolutions, it will also welcome a bigger watchdog.

Last December, the Ontario Ombudsman announced the government had passed Bill 8, the Public Sector and MPP Accountability and Transparency Act, effectively expanding the agency’s mandate.

This expansion enables the Ombudsman to investigate complaints about municipalities, universities and school boards for the first time. As of September 1, the Ombudsman was able to take complaints about schools boards. And, as of Jan. 1, 2016, the Ombudsman can start taking complaints about municipalities and universities. Previously, the Ombudsman was only able to investigate complaints about municipal closed meetings.

Bill 8 doubled the governing bodies the Ombudsman’s office oversees by adding some 547 bodies – 444 municipalities, 21 universities and 82 school boards – to the 500-plus provincial ministries, agencies, board corporations, commissions and tribunals already within the mandate.

"Right now, that we're aware of, there's only 17 out of 444 that make digital recordings of their meetings. That number is just not acceptable, it's too low. I would like to see better record keeping" Barbara Finlay, Acting Ombudsman

“We know that there is strong public demand for this new oversight,” said acting Ombudsman, Barbara Finlay, earlier in December at a press conference on the office’s annual report on closed meetings. “Since I arrived at the Ontario Ombudsman office in 2005, we’ve had to turn away more than 11,000 municipal complaints, more than 2,200 in the past two years.”

Finlay said that familiar issues continue to reoccur, including informal gatherings of council members that sometimes steer into discussing municipal business. Finlay also said that new issues have been discovered.

“And a few new (issues) have popped up, like exchanges of emails that become illegal meetings when councillors use them to make decisions away from public view,” said Finlay.

One of the reports findings that Finlay said particularly concerned her was the failure of municipalities to keep accurate records. Municipalities and local boards are required to keep records of all meetings, open and closed. Finlay said the Ombudsmen routinely recommends that municipalities keep audio or video recordings of all meetings to ensure accurate records.

“It is tremendously important to have an accurate record of what was discussed behind closed doors so that the independent investigator can judge whether the discussion was illegal or permitted,” said Finlay. “Right now, that we’re aware of, there’s only 17 out of 444 that make digital recordings of their meetings. That number is just not acceptable, it’s too low. I would like to see better record keeping.”

Due to the wider reach that the Ombudsman will have as of Jan. 1, the organization is expected to hire an addition 50 people to add to its 84 current staffers.

“We are hiring additional people in addition to jurisdiction over municipalities we received jurisdiction over school boards on September 1 so we have had to staff up for that,” We did receive additional resources. We are actually in the process of hiring additional staff…We have a dedicated staff, we’ve been preparing for this for the last year, they’re well trained and they’re ready to take complaints.