By Barbara Finlay, Acting Ombudsman
On January 1, 2016, citizens of Ontario will finally be able to bring their municipal complaints to their provincial Ombudsman. For readers in B.C., New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Yukon, this won’t seem like news – their ombudsmen have long had jurisdiction over municipalities, dealing with complaints about everything from misuse of public funds to bylaw changes.
But in Ontario, New Year’s Day will mark the start of a new era of accountability at the local level. The passage of “Bill 8” – the Public Sector and MPP Accountability and Transparency Act, 2014 – opens the broader public sector to independent oversight for the first time.
For those who may not know, “Ombudsman” is a Swedish word meaning “citizen’s representative,” and is an independent official who investigates complaints from the public about maladministration in government. In Ontario, the Ombudsman is one of seven independent officers of the legislature who oversee various aspects of the provincial government. Last year, the Ombudsman’s office handled more than 23,000 complaints, helping citizens with everything from incorrect tuition, to receiving medical care in correctional facilities, to wrong and confusing hydro bills.
However, complaints about the so-called “MUSH” sector (municipalities, universities, school boards, hospitals, long-term care, police and children’s aid societies) have remained outside of the office’s jurisdiction since Ontario’s first Ombudsman Arthur Maloney was appointed in 1975. Mr. Maloney had barely been in office a year when he observed that it was a mistake to leave the broader public sector out of Ombudsman oversight, because “these bodies have important decision-making powers and take actions which affect the lives of all of us.”
Since 2005 alone, the Ombudsman’s office has had to turn away more than 24,000 “MUSH” complaints. More than 10,500 of those were about municipalities, making them the most complained-about area of the sector by far. Complaints about municipalities ran the gamut from garbage collection and snow removal to conflict of interest and the conduct of council members. Many citizens expressed the view that they had nowhere else to turn for independent review of their local concerns. As of January 1, that will change.
With that in mind, now is the ideal time to address some of the most common questions that have come from the public and municipal officials about what Ombudsman oversight will mean to them.
How the Ombudsman’s office works
The Ombudsman’s office accepts complaints through email, fax, web form, telephone and in person. It does not charge fees to complainants; in fact, all services are free of charge (the office is funded through the provincial treasury). Complaints made to the office are strictly confidential and all investigations are conducted in private; complainants are never identified without consent.
Ombudsman staff will treat municipal complaints just as they do provincial complaints: Assessing each one to see if they are able to help, and referring them back to existing accountability mechanisms wherever possible. If the problem cannot be solved at the local level, then they may step in to ask the municipality for more information. Where needed, the Ombudsman’s team will conduct independent investigations of individual and systemic issues, and issue recommendations to help improve government administration, service and accountability.
Many Ontarians are familiar with the Ombudsman’s large-scale systemic investigations, which have resulted in published reports and recommendations for significant changes – almost all of which have been accepted and implemented by the provincial government since 2005. For example, in 2006, the provincially-run Municipal Property Assessment Corporation was overhauled according to the Ombudsman’s recommendations in the wake of a systemic investigation into almost 4,000 complaints. And in 2015, Hydro One agreed to fix its billing and customer service problems after the Ombudsman’s systemic investigation into almost 11,000 complaints.
Still, the vast majority of cases brought to the Ombudsman team are resolved quickly, informally and usually within two weeks. Numerous cases have been resolved this way at the provincial level, with Ombudsman staff proactively working with senior bureaucrats to alert them to serious problems, often addressing them to the satisfaction of all concerned. The Ombudsman’s office has a strong record of working constructively and co-operatively with government bodies to resolve issues, and plans to continue that trend when working with municipalities.
In cases where a formal investigation is necessary – that is, the issue can’t be easily resolved – the municipality in question will be given notice and a chance to respond before any report is finalized.
Who can complain
Anyone who has a concern about a municipality can complain, including residents, staff, council members, family members, ratepayers, and members of interest groups. Under the Ombudsman Act, the Ombudsman also has discretion not to investigate complaints that are considered frivolous or vexatious, or from parties who have no personal involvement in the matter. The Ombudsman can also launch an “own motion” investigation (without a complaint) into a matter of public interest.
Local accountability and complaint mechanisms
Since 2008, municipalities have had the option to put their own local accountability officers in place, but very few have done so. Only a few dozen of the province’s 444 municipalities have appointed integrity commissioners, auditors general are almost nonexistent, and there are no municipal ombudsmen except in Toronto, which is required to have one by law. The advent of Bill 8 has caused many officials to ask whether local officers are necessary, or will the Ombudsman’s office simply take over the roles they might have filled?
The answer is no – quite the opposite. The role of the Ombudsman is to encourage and bolster local mechanisms, not to replace them. It will largely involve reviewing decisions of those bodies, to ensure appropriate policies and procedures were followed. Bill 8 provides that the Ombudsman’s office cannot get involved in a matter before any local ombudsman has dealt with it. If it results in the creation of more accountability officers at the local level, it will be a positive development for all concerned. Wherever possible, municipalities should be strengthening and defining their own local complaint mechanisms and policies, giving citizens a clear path to follow when trying to resolve problems.
Bill 8 has already prompted many municipalities to develop complaint processes, implement tracking systems for complaints, review policies and discuss establishing local ombudsmen or something similar. All of these steps greatly enhance local accountability and transparency. It has been good to see the work that many local officials have put into preparing for this change.
A side note about closed meetings: Since 2008, the Ombudsman’s office has been the default investigator for complaints about closed municipal meetings (as required by the Municipal Act, 2001), but municipalities can opt out of Ombudsman oversight by appointing their own investigator for closed meeting complaints. This does not change under Bill 8. However, after January 1, municipalities cannot opt out of Ombudsman oversight for all other types of complaints, even if they appoint their own ombudsmen.
This past fall, the Ombudsman’s office partnered with the Public Policy Forum to convene groups of stakeholders from the municipal sector (as well as from school boards and universities, which are also part of the extended mandate under Bill 8) to hear their concerns and to share information about how Ombudsman oversight works. Ombudsman staff have also attended numerous gatherings of municipal officials to give presentations and distribute information, and can provide brochures and other publications upon request. The Ombudsman’s office looks forward to building the same constructive and co-operative working relationship with municipalities as it has established with provincial bodies. Contact information and much more is posted at www.ombudsman.on.ca, and a designated team will be available to assist municipal stakeholders with any questions they may have as New Year’s Day approaches.