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Regional Council votes support for provincial exam of Pelham

As a packed gallery looks on, former Pelham Town Councillor Marvin Junkin speaks before Regional Council. VOICE PHOTO

Marathon three-hour debate ends with approval of Pelham Councillor Brian Baty’s endorsement motion

BY SAMUEL PICCOLO
The VOICE

In front of some 100 Pelham residents—and another two dozen in an overflow room—and after three hours of debate last Thursday night, Niagara Regional Council voted to support a request for the Province of Ontario to examine the Town of Pelham’s finances.

The 15-12 vote to support a motion tabled by Pelham Regional Councillor Brian Baty came after extensive comments from delegations, including former Pelham Town Councillor Marvin Junkin, and members of the advocacy group Pelham DEBT.

Though Regional Council was originally going to consider a recommendation from the Audit Committee, which called on the Ontario Municipal Board to investigate the Town, the Region instead passed Baty’s motion.

The motion quoted directly from KPMG’s reports and cited Town Council’s refusal to hold another public meeting, before expressing Regional support for the resident petition that asks the Minister of Municipal Affairs to conduct an audit of Pelham.

The Municipal Affairs Act allows for the province to consider an investigation upon the receipt of a petition with 50 signatures, and the petition referenced by Baty’s motion had received well over 200.

“There is no witch hunt,” said Baty, speaking for the motion. “We need that objective third-party, we need openness and transparency, and we need to re-insert trust into the community.”

The Pelham residents who presented to Council asked the Region to support Baty’s call. There were no delegations opposing it.

“We are not a political organization,” said Alan Morgan, of the DEBT group. “We are not Mayor Augustyn’s political enemies.”

Paul Bryant, who presented with Morgan and has lived in Pelham for 30 years, said that he felt “marginalized and disrespected” given Council’s decision to cancel a promised public meeting.

While Bryant and Morgan acknowledged that some members of DEBT had met with Town staff, Morgan said that the meeting produced only “partial answers,” and that they were still waiting for follow-up responses.

Resident Bernie Law, who also presented for DEBT, said that Town staff talked in “circles and circles” during the meeting.

Councillor Tony Quirk, who is chair of the Audit Committee, offered Regional Councillors a more technical explanation of why he thought the motion should be supported.

“We signed off on a $37 million debenture with information that was not accurate,” said Quirk, alluding to the Town’s undisclosed internal borrowing, revealed publicly late last autumn, with the shock resignation of former Councillor Marvin Junkin.

During Junkin’s presentation on Thursday, Councillor David Barrick asked him about the borrowing.

“Were you aware of the reserves being used?” asked Barrick.

Junkin said that Council was not.

“In budget debates, the former Treasurer would go through and say all of the reserves were healthy.”

“If you weren’t aware of this, then certainly Council didn’t authorize it,” said Barrick. “Let’s support the motion and let’s move on,” he urged the rest of Regional Council.

Quirk also condemned Pelham’s decision to keep this information secret after learning of it during a closed-door meeting on September 5.

“They got this report [that showed depleted reserves] and then they lawyered up,” he said. “It’s painful to know that [Pelham] Councillors were working cooperatively to deceive one of their partners.”

Quirk also pointed to KPMG’s review of an 3.3 acre East Fonthill land transaction, which despite the review’s limitations still highlighted areas of concern.

“The CAO sole-sourced a contract to a developer…and entered into an agreement that could have violated a certain sections of the Development Charges Act. Why should that not be investigated?” said Quirk, referring to the Town’s credit-for-land scheme, whose legality KPMG termed uncertain.

“They got their accounting advice from a legal firm…and they got legal advice from accountants,” Quirk said.

Pelham Mayor Dave Augustyn, who opposed Baty’s motion, accused other Councillors of cherry-picking from the KPMG reports and of amplifying these cherry-picked parts out of proportion.

Augustyn argued that a provincial audit would pose another needless expense to the Town, since under legislation the municipality would be responsible for footing the bill.

On his Facebook page over the weekend, Augustyn asserted that Baty had said that he had not read the KPMG reports, and that someone else had “verified” the motion for him. Baty said that this was false.

“I think that Dave is making a leap,” said Baty in response. “I did not tell him that I had not read the reports. I said that I was having others fact-check the motion for me, since I do not have extensive experience in the quasi-legal language used by accountants.”

An accounting expert who has advised the Voice saw the Facebook claim.

“I can’t believe the Mayor would make a post like that on Facebook—especially when so many people say they do not trust him. Posts and comments like that are exactly why they do not believe him.”

Augustyn also objected to Pelham DEBT’s continued presence at the Region.

“The group has never presented to Pelham Town Council. I emailed Mr. Harley and others, and none of them accepted. The Town has always been reacting to the Region,” said Augustyn, reiterating what he characterized as an ongoing invitation to the DEBT group to meet and answer their questions.

This assertion drew jeers from the gallery, packed almost exclusively by Pelham residents, prompting Chair Alan Caslin to remind the audience that they were to remain quiet. Caslin had to remind the crowd of this on multiple occasions, including when there were bursts of applause.

Of the 11 Regional Councillors who voted with Augustyn, none of them appeared to defend the state of Pelham’s finances. Instead, they justified their vote by arguing that the Region was not the right forum for the concerns of Pelham residents.

“I would encourage you not to give up,” said Lincoln Mayor Sandra Easton, telling Pelham resident Bernie Law that he and Pelham DEBT should continue to try and engage with the Town. “But I won’t be supporting the motion because we have nothing to offer you [at Regional Council].”

Councillor Bart Maves, who supported the motion, pushed back against Easton and others who suggested that Pelham residents keep trying to get answers from the Town.

“The fact of the matter is that they don’t trust the answers they’re getting,” said Maves. “Why would another meeting with the Town help that? They’ve found the answers to be less than forthcoming…Don’t keep saying, ‘Go talk to them.’ They’ve done it all. They don’t believe what comes out of [the Town’s] mouth. They want to go to the province.”

Former Councillor Marvin Junkin, who resigned and revealed that Council had been informed of the Town’s precarious financial state and decided to conceal it, was the first presenter of the night to call on Regional Council to pass Baty’s motion.

St. Catharines Mayor Walter Sendzik told Junkin that Pelham residents were wasting a lot of Regional time by repeatedly bringing the matter before Council, and said that since there were just seven months before the election residents ought to wait until then.

Junkin replied by saying that Regional Council could “wash its hands” of the matter by voting to support a provincial investigation.

In the lead-up to Thursday’s meeting, Augustyn lobbied councils in other municipalities to pass resolutions voicing support for Pelham Town Council’s defiance of the Region, and rebuking the Region for involving itself in a town’s finances. Councils in Welland, Port Colborne, St. Catharines, and Thorold all passed motions to this end.

But on Thursday, Regional Councillors who supported Baty’s motion pushed back against the idea that it was inappropriate for them to discuss Pelham’s finances. Maves said that an interplay on jurisdictions is common.

“Welland’s not happy with our Development Charge policy, and St. Catharines wanted us to tear up a garbage contract,” said Maves. “It happens all the time.”

He said that there is good reason that the Region has never taken such an interest in a town’s finances before.

“We’ve never gotten this involved, and the reason why is because no one has ever taken on this kind of debt for this size of town. No one has brought forward this very odd land deal. We’d never heard of that,” said Maves.

Both Maves and Barrick made reference to loans applied for by other municipalities.

“We debate loans for municipalities—we’ll be debating ones for West Lincoln and Port Colborne tonight, and I’ll be supporting them,” said Barrick.

“Of course you will,” heckled a councillor from the other side of the room, apparently referring to the inevitability that Barrick would vote in favour of a loan for Port Colborne, his town.

“Yes, because they did things right,” Barrick shot back.

While there was specualtion that the mayors on Council would vote with Augustyn, in the end five mayors voted to support Baty’s motion.

Support for the resolution also crossed the perceived partisan lines on Council. While Maves and Quirk are both Progressive Conservatives, longtime Liberal Paul Grenier spoke in support of Baty, and former Liberal MP and current Port Colborne Mayor John Maloney voted with the majority.

Councillor Gary Burroughs and Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati, both of whom are Liberals, also voted for the motion.

Some Councillors appeared unsure. Councillor Tim Rigby, who was formerly the Mayor of St. Catharines, said that he had “mixed emotions” about the resolution.

“This is one step closer to opening the door to the Region looking after all finances in the future,” said Rigby. “Then we’d be closer to being one city, which I do support.” He smiled at his own contradiction.

At the conclusion of the Pelham discussion, the dozens of residents who sat through the three-hour ordeal gathered in the lobby.

There, they thanked Baty for his motion.

“We should be celebrating in our community,” said Baty, pointing to the upcoming opening of the community centre. “But instead, we’re hurting.”

During the meeting, he had attributed this “hurting” to “the obfuscation of Council and the Mayor.”

“Residents feel that they’re being talked at. There’s not an open dialogue,” said Baty, who offered to serve as a mediator between the Town and residents.

In a statement on Friday, Town Public Relations and Marketing Specialist Marc MacDonald expressed the Town’s displeasure with the Region’s vote.

“Unfortunately, Regional Council’s attempt to initiate yet another frivolous investigation will burden Pelham taxpayers with a huge, unnecessary expense,” wrote MacDonald. “Council and staff remain committed to our common vision that Pelham becomes the most vibrant, innovative, and caring community in Niagara.”

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