What you need to know about the Ontario Ombudsman’s expanded oversight of municipalities, universiti

What you need to know about the Ontario Ombudsman’s expanded oversight of municipalities, universities and school boards

February 19, 2016

19 February, 2016

On February 5, 2016, the Ontario Bar Association presented a breakfast program titled “What you need to know about the Ontario Ombudsman’s expanded oversight of municipalities, universities and school boards”. Laura Pettigrew, General Counsel at the Ontario Ombudsman, and Barbara Finlay, Acting Ombudsman, each spoke about the Ontario Ombudsman’s expanded jurisdiction.  Acting Deputy Ombudsman Wendy Ray moderated the program.

Robin Bates
This link opens in a new tabOntario Bar Association
February 19, 2016

On February 5, 2016, the Ontario Bar Association presented a breakfast program titled “What you need to know about the Ontario Ombudsman’s expanded oversight of municipalities, universities and school boards”. Laura Pettigrew, General Counsel at the Ontario Ombudsman, and Barbara Finlay, Acting Ombudsman, each spoke about the Ontario Ombudsman’s expanded jurisdiction. Acting Deputy Ombudsman Wendy Ray moderated the program.

Attendees were provided with a brief overview of the role and function of the Office of the Ontario Ombudsman. The Office has existed since 1975 and has the mandate to review and investigate the administrative conduct of certain public sector organizations. Currently, the Ombudsman has authority to review complaints about more than 1,000 public sector bodies in Ontario. During its last fiscal year – before the expansion in its jurisdiction – the Ombudsman received more than 23,000 complaints.

Following this overview, Ms. Pettigrew outlined the legislative framework established by the Ombudsman Act (the Act). The Act gives the Ombudsman broad powers to investigate complaints about administrative conduct. However, consistent with its traditional role, the Ombudsman is a recourse of last resort; generally individuals must raise their concerns with the involved organization before the Ombudsman would review a complaint. While the Ombudsman does have strong powers of investigation, the vast majority of complaints are resolved informally. Ms. Pettigrew noted that, pursuant to the Act, the work of the Office is carried out in private; information supplied to the Ombudsman is privileged and cannot be used against any person in a legal proceeding except in a trial for perjury. Further, the Office is not subject to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act or the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

Lastly, Ms. Pettigrew discussed the Ombudsman’s role as a closed meeting investigator for over 200 of Ontario’s 444 municipalities. She indicated that the Ombudsman’s approach to closed meeting complaints differs from the approach taken with other complaints. As a closed meeting investigator, the Ombudsman is tasked with enforcing the Municipal Act and determining whether a municipality has violated its procedure by-law or the Municipal Act’s open meeting provisions. She advised that, unlike other complaints, these complaints often result in formal investigations and final reports.

In the next portion of the program, Acting Ombudsman Finlay discussed the changes implemented by the Public Sector and MPP Accountability and Transparency Act, 2014, often referred to as “Bill 8”. Under the new legislation, the Ontario Ombudsman has the authority to review and investigate complaints about municipalities, publicly-funded universities, and school boards. She said that her Office has reached out to stakeholders across the province to establish relationships with the organizations that her Office has begun to oversee. Acting Ombudsman Finlay concluded by encouraging organizations to establish local accountability mechanisms and emphasized that her Office would not replace those local processes.

The program concluded with a brief question period. Attendees were interested in knowing how the Office intended to make the expanded jurisdiction operational and whether the Ombudsman had looked to other jurisdictions as a model. Acting Ombudsman Finlay confirmed that the new jurisdiction is already operational and that the Office has adapted the approach it uses in the provincial sector to the areas of expanded jurisdiction. She also stated that provincial ombudsmen always look to share best practices amongst the provinces. Attendees were also interested in how long the Ombudsman takes to resolve complaints and how many turn into formal investigations. Acting Ombudsman Finlay responded that last year, 53% of complaints were resolved within two weeks. She said only a tiny portion of the complaints received by the Office become formal investigations, and typically those would be systemic issues.

If this article piqued your curiosity, you may be interested in an upcoming webinar about what an organization should expect when the Ontario Ombudsman calls. Acting Ombudsman Finlay advised that the webinar would be available later this year through the OBA. Please visit https://www.ombudsman.on.ca or http://oba.org/pd for details on the webinar when they become available.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Robin Bates recently graduated from the University of Toronto, Faculty of Law. She is currently articling with the Office of the Ontario Ombudsman.