Ontario ombudsman Paul Dubé on Tuesday released his annual report into the 21,328 complaints his office received in 2016-17 - his first full term with an expanded mandate that now covers municipalities, universities and school boards. Dubé now oversees more than 1,000 public-sector bodies in the province, so QP Briefing thought it worthwhile to highlight some...
Ontario ombudsman Paul Dubé on Tuesday released his 2016-2017 Annual Report (PDF) into the 21,328 complaints his office received in 2016-17 - his first full term with an expanded mandate that now covers municipalities, universities and school boards.
Dubé now oversees more than 1,000 public-sector bodies in the province, so QP Briefing thought it worthwhile to highlight some of the more notable cases dealt with over the past year.
Family Responsibility Office crowned most-complained-about organization, again
With the exception of province's jails, the Family Responsibility Office (FRO) - which has the often complicated task of collecting and enforcing court-ordered child- and spousal-support payments - is consistently the most notorious organization, receiving 1,036 complaints in fiscal 2016-17. It placed first in the ombudsman's previous annual report as well.
The report points to one "egregious" case in which the FRO garnished almost $143,000 from a man's pension for support payments to his ex-wife - who had died nearly 13 years earlier. Even after the office, run by the Social Services Ministry, was notified, it forwarded more than $50,000 from the husband's pension into his deceased wife's defunct bank account. He was eventually refunded $90,000, after prodding from the ombudsman.
Dubé acknowledged the government is in the beginning stages of a three-year plan to address problems at the FRO. He pointed to "new leadership" and "new processes" in place that have contributed to faster turnaround for resolutions.
Overall, Dubé said he senses a growing "thirst for accountability" from government, and the citizens who hold them responsible.
Government organization complaints, ranked
Jails far outflank other institutions when it comes to complaints, rounding out at 3,998 cases in 2016-17, followed by the FRO. This trend carries over from last year. In third place is the Ontario Disability Support Program with 862 grievances, followed by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board with 492. The Social Justice Tribunals Ontario and Developmental Services Programs each gained 238 and 216 complaints respectively.
"Ghost" driver's licences still haunt
Duplicate or "ghost" driver's licences still remain an issue despite the Transportation Ministry's (MTO) plan to introduce a new system after concerns were raised in 2012 that convicted drunk drivers could still be on the road because of a system malfunction.
The problem is due to a glitch with merging and matching information from police and the courts that shows someone's licence has been suspended following an impaired- or dangerous-driving conviction. The duplicate record that's generated does not always carry that information over.
One man experienced that first-hand earlier this year. He was pulled over by police and charged with driving with a suspended licence because his ghost record showed it was invalid for more than a decade. The records were merged and he was given the green light to hit the road again on the condition he pass a test normally designed for nascent drivers. MTO eventually revised its request for the test when the ombudsman got involved.
MTO parks driver for nearly a year
Dubé's report highlights another "egregious" case of a man who lost his job because the Ministry of Transportation erroneously suspended his licence for 315 days for failing to provide his medical information despite not having a health condition. The ministry restored his licence and compensated him for financial hardship endured during the year he was sans licence.
Among the 475 complaints to the MTO, 211 had to do with processes around driver's licences in general, while 116 were related specifically to medical reviews. Forty-four complaints were made about vehicle licensing and 34 about Metrolinx.
Meanwhile, Dubé is investigating if there's a "systemic problem" with the way MTO informs drivers their licence has been suspended or reinstated after not paying fines, in the wake of complaints and media reports that many drivers, unaware their licence is invalid, continue to drive illegally for years. It will focus on administrative processes and monitoring systems.
MTO was also called out for faulty correspondence after several drivers griped about licence suspensions, renewals and other notices not being delivered on time or at all. Five per cent of correspondence, or 550 envelopes, get returned each week and approximately 52 per cent contain notices of suspension.
The government says it's working to address the problem.
"(T)hey immediately implemented short- and long-term corrective measures, including a manual audit of returned mail, and system changes that will flag drivers whose mailing addresses are different from their street addresses," and strengthened training for ServiceOntario employees, Dubé's report notes.
Mysterious municipal meetings
Forty-three per cent of closed-door municipal meetings that were reviewed by the ombudsman occurred illegally, the report stated. Of the 42 meetings held by 41 different councils investigated, 18 were found to have violated the Municipal Act – a 13 per cent increase compared with the same period last year. In all, Dubé's office received 109 complaints specifically about in-camera meetings.
Before calling it a summer, Ontario MPPs passed Bill 68, the Modernizing Ontario's Municipal Legislation Act, which will allow municipalities to meet behind closed doors in additional circumstances, such as when discussing "trade secrets" or "scientific, technical, commercial, financial or labour relations information." It would also require councils adopt codes of conduct and hire their own integrity commissioners, which Dubé said could address some general complaints (more on that below).
Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton top would-be offenders
Of Ontario's 444 municipalities, Toronto is the most complained about, with 305 grievances heard in the past year. Ottawa came in second with 123, Hamilton received 86, London garnered 77 and Sudbury got 64.
In all, 2,667 general complaints were made about 328 towns, nearly 20 per cent of which had to do with local councils, with some coming from municipal staff and elected officials themselves.
For example, a man who was called "names" by a councillor in an email complained to the city and, unsatisfied with the mayor's suggestion the pair meet privately for a solution, reached out to the city clerk, but that only prompted another "disparaging" email from the councillor. The town in question, which isn't named in the report, eventually agreed to beef up its sensitivity training.
Hydro One throwback, rage over electricity rates
People are still turning to Dubé to vent frustration about Hydro One, even though the former Crown utility was nixed from his oversight when the government partially privatized it. Still, 470 complaints were made to Dubé's office last year, the bulk of which were referred to the office of the Hydro One ombudsman, formerly held by Fiona Crean, who quietly resigned earlier this year.
The last public watchdog to investigate This link opens in a new tabHydro One complaints, about massive billing errors, was André Marin in 2015.
Dubé does preside over municipal hydro utilities and billing was the biggest beef people reported in fiscal 2016-17. That includes one woman who had been overcharged for electricity for two years "at rates much higher than her actual level of consumption." The company passed the buck to the landlord until the ombudsman intervened and the woman was refunded.
For all the public furor swirling around increasing hydro rates in recent months, just 55 out of 120 complaints to the Energy Ministry were about the cost of electricity and natural gas. Ten people have filed grievances about the Ontario Electricity Support Program since its inception in January 2016, mostly pertaining to service delays and questions about eligibility. Those problems are handled by the Ontario Energy Board.
Busing was the touchiest of subjects for school boards, due in large part to the chaos that ensued in Toronto last fall, when thousands of students were left stranded or experienced delays because of a shortage of drivers. Dubé is probing the matter and the findings are expected in August, ahead of the academic year.
Complaints about the other ombudsman
More than 600 complaints were received about hospitals, Community Care Access Centres and long-term care homes, but were referred to the patient ombudsperson, former PC MPP and leadership contender Christine Elliott, who took over some of that management last summer. The Patient Ombudsman's Office itself received complaints – 16 in the first nine months of its opening, mostly about delayed responses or disagreements over decisions.
To contact the reporter on this story: