Pelham CAO lobbies Regional councillors on debt issue behind closed doors
BY VOICE STAFF
An employee of Niagara Region has come forward alleging that Regional matters are improperly discussed and strategy agreed on, out of public view, in closed-door meetings among the mayors and CAOs of Niagara’s municipalities.
Together, the region’s mayors, who also serve as Regional councillors, make up 12 of the 30 votes on Niagara Regional Council. Section 239 of the Ontario Municipal Act sets out limited conditions under which meetings of officeholders may be closed to the public.
The employee provided the Voice with copies of minutes taken at recent meetings. Labelled, “Municipal Mayors and Administrators Meeting,” the paper has confirmed that the gatherings occur approximately quarterly. There is no advance notice to public or press. Neither minutes nor executive summaries of past meetings are publicly available. As of last Friday, the Voice was unable to find any mention of the meetings—current, past, or future—on any of the region’s municipal websites.
The employee, whose identity the paper has agreed to withhold, says that Regional councillors who are not mayors are also not informed of the gatherings and would not be permitted to attend in any case.
“Even if [a member of the public] showed up at the next meeting, they would not let you in. It’s a closed-door meeting. If a Regional councilor who wasn’t mayor tried to go in, no.”
What finally prompted the source to come forward, he says, was what he asserts was a clear attempt in June by Pelham CAO Darren Ottaway to influence the outcome of Regional Council’s current inquiries into Pelham’s finances.
At the most recent meeting, held June 16 in Ft. Erie, the agenda notes that Ottaway requested that the group discuss the “Taxpayer Affordability Guide” under review by the Region’s Audit Committee, a measure originally tabled over concerns about debt levels in Pelham.
According to the minutes, Ottaway stated that an “arbitrary” limit of 20% debt repayment to a municipality’s annual budget wasn’t workable.
“[Ottaway] feels that the Region is making a foray into municipal affairs,” reads the minutes. “He stated that this is a fundamental concern and asked for support from local municipalities to tell the Region this is not their jurisdiction and they should not be involved in [Pelham’s] tax levy as it can become very destructive and a discouragement to growth.”
The source asserts that previously some Regional councillors have voiced their own concerns about the closed-door sessions, but have been reluctant to make their objections public.
“I can say that those [councillors] who are aware have raised similar concerns that, ‘Hey, this looks like an illegal meeting,’” he says.
“No one has taken action yet because they don’t want to upset 12 mayors, right? Because everyone in the Regional Council chambers is friends with at least one mayor. And so if they bring it up, they think they’re going to throw whoever their buddy is under the bus. I think before— and they would argue— if they were here, they would argue it’s ‘information sharing,’ ‘best practices,’ ‘shared services,’ which is fine if it’s talking about local municipal issues. But when you have detailed agendas and detailed minutes talking about Regional issues— in this other one they talk about the airports and inter-municipal transit and Region-heavy agenda topics. Your Regional councilors know you shouldn’t be talking about those behind closed doors. By the time the mayors come to the Region, they’re kind of trying to be a united front on certain issues that they already talked about. It’s not right in a democratic society.”
Pelham Mayor Dave Augustyn sees nothing wrong with the private gatherings.
“People expect Niagara’s Cities, Towns, and Townships to share best practices, the find efficiencies, and to work together. These types of meetings should continue to help all to meet those goals,” he said.
Some of Augustyn’s fellow Niagara councillors, however—particularly those who are not also mayors—are not on the same page.
“I have reviewed the minutes of the most recent June 16, 2017 meeting and am surprised that the agenda items are nearly all topics pertaining to the past or future business of Niagara Regional Council,” says Regional Council Chair Alan Caslin.
“It is clearly noted in the minutes of the last two meetings that decisions are being made, or at very least consensus gathered, in order to coordinate and organize how such Niagara Region business ought to be handled at Regional Council and/or Niagara Region Committees. I’m not sure these meetings of so many elected officials pass the smell test for openness and transparency, and I encourage that all such future discussion, debate and furtherance of Niagara Region Council business take place on the floor of Niagara Regional Council meetings.”
Fort Erie Councillor Sandy Annunziatta was similarly concerned.
“I do not receive invitations, I am not privy to the decisions made in these meetings, nor do I receive minutes, or executive summaries,” said Annunziata.
“But by virtue of the agenda passed on and the request from Pelham to add what I can only categorize as a Regional item, it does raise issues of propriety in my mind. I must say, I have a host of questions myself as to why the Town of Pelham felt the need to bring forward this item to be discussed in that forum? It is both odd and alarming. Was this a covert attempt by Pelham to influence a large majority of Regional councillors? Was this a preemptive attempt to discuss and debate a Regional issue undercover from the public? I certainly hope not.”
Port Colborne Regional Councillor David Barrick, who originally tabled the motion in March that led to the Audit Committee’s investigation, said that while he had heard that the meetings took place, he was not aware that Regional political issues were discussed.
“I am particularly concerned with what [the Voice] provided,” said Barrick, “It looks as though my motion at the Region on Pelham’s finances/taxpayer affordability was added to their agenda by Pelham to be discussed. That’s clearly a Regional motion being discussed/debated at this meeting prior to being considered by Regional Council.”
The source who came forward speculates that Pelham’s motivation for the closed-door discussion was to rally support for a parliamentary manuever that would have either killed, or watered down, the Audit Committee’s work. Such an attempt was likely planned, he thinks, for the Regional Council meeting held two weeks later, on June 29.
However, any such prospective move was derailed when developer Rainer Hummel, speaking to Council during the June 29 meeting after Mayor Augustyn objected to him doing so, introduced fresh concerns and allegations surrounding the East Fonthill development.
CAO Darren Ottaway declined requests to comment directly on his remarks at the June 16 meeting, deferring to the Mayor.