Do the audit, and do it right
BY NICK SALTARELLI
Special to the VOICE
Over the past few months the ratepayers of the Town of Pelham and the Niagara Region have been witnessing a gathering storm. What they do not yet know is whether it will rage into a cyclone consuming many, or devolve into a tempest in a teacup, a contest between two men of local prominence who alone may bear the brunt of the consequences. This is, of course, the Town’s East Fonthill development and the forensic audit proposed to clear away, or substantiate, the suspicions surrounding it.
On one side is Mayor Augustyn and on the other is developer Rainer Hummel. Augustyn insists there is absolutely nothing to see here, while Hummel’s nose for business tells him something definitely smells fishy. Mr. Hummel trusts his instincts so completely that he is prepared not only to put his money where his mouth is but to put his credibility, and potentially the health of his business, on the line. At stake for Mr. Augustyn is also his credibility, but more importantly his legacy and political future.
While his off-mic “indelicate remark” about Mayor Augustyn following last Monday’s Regional Audit Committee meeting remains unpublished, that Mr. Hummel uttered it is a matter of public record and is a clear indication that, for him, this matter has taken on a personal dimension.
In its umbrage Council, which we can safely assume includes the Mayor, has publicly contemplated initiating a libel suit against Mr. Hummel, and there are few things more seriously personal than that. Mr. Hummel bids Council to bring it on. That second shoe may yet drop.
Notwithstanding the bit players in the unfolding drama —certain Town staff and sitting councillors in the two levels of government —the stakes are highest for these two men. Ironically the upside potential for either is at best unclear, while the downside is considerable.
Mr. Hummel’s business enterprise depends, if not on the goodwill of the various municipal governments of Niagara, then at a minimum their cooperation. If the audit findings indicate nothing untoward and everything above board, Mr. Hummel’s professional capital amongst municipal staff and officials who review and approve his development proposals will be much diminished, and that cannot be good for business. More significantly perhaps, it would effectively untie the laces of that other shoe.
Legally, Mayor Augustyn and Council are under no obligation to accept Mr. Hummel’s $50,000 offer to underwrite the forensic audit or to accept the recommendation of the Region’s Audit Committee that they do so—and the smart money is on the full Regional Council endorsing this same recommendation at its next meeting on October 5.
Much like Donald Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, Council’s refusal to perform a full and independent audit will leave an indelible impression that they have something to hide. This would not bode well at the polls a year from now, and could result in calls for a higher-level investigation. And if the audit should find that egregious errors have indeed been made, at a minimum the reputations and political ambitions of Mr. Augustyn and the councillors who stand by him will lay in ruin. They will otherwise be vindicated. There is, in fact, no other avenue to vindication.
While the matter remains unresolved, the muttering grows louder, imaginations run wilder and suspicions spill over the boundaries of Pelham into the greater Region. There is only one way to clear the air and move on. Rainer Hummel has thrown down the gauntlet. Dave Augustyn should pick it up.
Do the audit. And do it as the Region specifies.