fbpx

COMMENTARY: Getting real—Truth and transparency at the NPCA

A protester outside the Balls Falls Centre, July 2017. SUPPLIED PHOTO

 

BY DAVID BARRICK, NPCA Interim CAO
Special to the VOICE

As Interim CAO of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA), I appreciate and value honest and unbiased media, and thus welcome the opportunity to provide some much-needed clarity to the people of Hamilton, Haldimand, and Niagara regarding our organization.

Background

The NPCA was in crisis in the years leading up to 2010. The organization was not following its legislated mandate and was operating in a silo, ignoring municipal partners, conservationists, developers, and other stakeholders. This is precisely why the previous board of directors decided to take their responsibility for oversight of the organization seriously.

For example, before 2010, the staff at the NPCA had completely changed floodplain mapping along the Welland River without consulting anyone and without any citizen engagement. This action outraged citizens when they soon discovered that the NPCA failed to inform them that the boundaries had changed and thereby restricted their land use. The new NPCA board re-booted the project, keeping thousands of landowners along the river informed at each step of the project.

Prior to 2010, there was no financial accountability. The funding reserves were drained to zero, and therefore all the pressure was to increase property taxes. No budget processes followed general accounting practices, and this translated into a lack of reflection on the actual expenditures or reality of the organization, equating to zero financial transparency.

No procurement processes were being followed, leading to needlessly expensive purchases, and lead to questionable relationships between various staff and vendors. No project management meant capital projects were completed late and grossly over budget regularly. For example, at Long Beach Conservation Area, a water filter system was built, but never operated because of the design, after thousands of dollars in investment. Another example, there was no capital planning and management, which resulted in a 40-year-old HVAC system failing, creating an emergency crisis that led to thousands of more tax dollars being spent.

There was no human resources function whatsoever, which meant no hiring practices, zero records, and rampant nepotism. There were agreements in place where the NPCA maintained properties owned by others at its expense and risk while neglecting its own properties. There was a complete lack of corporate policies including records retention. There were long-term and costly agreements the NPCA made without board knowledge under a blanket board resolution that would “allow staff to enter into various agreements,” again translating to zero transparency. There was no one checking that the organization was fulfilling its mandate as it is prescribed in the Conservation Authorities Act.

Just imagine an organization where staff would flex their work schedules on their own, so they could take Mondays and Fridays off. Then, within their shortened work week, would book overtime. And then, record the overtime by pencil and paper and submit to payroll.

Just imagine an organization where staff would live at an NPCA property, rent-free, while being paid an annual salary for four-months of programming.

Just imagine an organization where managers would hide employees from the board by placing their salaries in the capital budget.

Just imagine an organization where staff would focus their restoration work on wealthy Niagara-on-the-Lake properties, instead of other parts of the watershed, where the water quality was continuously reported as poor.

Well, this was not imagination, these were the real issues occurring at the NPCA. When the NPCA board took measures to begin fixing the failing organization, that meant the freedom and liberties which certain individuals had been taking stopped, which resulted in backlash. Abusing the lack of oversight had to come to an end. Taxpayer dollars were being spent freely, and with zero accountability in the years leading up to 2010.

Simply put, it was a free-for-all with your tax dollars. That had to stop, and it did.

Post-2010, the NPCA board hired a management team that introduced professional services, such as an electronic payroll system, a certified accountant and financial systems, additional professional planners that publicly disclosed budget details, and enhanced reporting back to the NPCA board. These historical facts are what has resulted in a media storm, as staff lost their freelance abilities to abuse the system for their personal gain.

There’s been a concerted effort to purposely mislead the public, when in fact we have spent thousands of hours to bring clarity to the public, even going so far as to build an entire website (npcadialogue.ca) to correct the mammoth amount of misinformation. This media storm continues to loom over the NPCA as former staff and biased journalists attempt to discredit the many improvements made by the NPCA board.

When the Auditor General’s staff were shown all the improvements mentioned above (and more), they acknowledged and accepted the changes, but responded that this was not the focus of their work.

Now, there is tremendous value in having excellent local media reporting. But in today’s reality, people are turning to alternative sources for their news. The result is a significant decline in revenue.

Newspapers make money to operate by selling advertising space. “Clickbait” is an article that entices users to click on it, within which there will be an ad. The more clicks an article gets, the more easily the newspaper can demonstrate and increase what they charge for that ad space. Based on the model of revenue generation through advertising dollars, it stands to reason that a reporter would be motivated to write salacious and controversial articles. It is job security. It is also in direct conflict with any notion of fair or honest reporting. This fact was asserted to NPCA management by a local reporter, who remarked, “If it bleeds, it reads.” [Editor’s note: While large media corporations may earn significant income from online advertising, the Voice does not, with such income representing less than one-tenth of one percent of revenue.]

Thus, there is no need to base articles on facts, because there is no accountability to anyone but advertising sales. It is why so much news is manufactured. Create the story, get the clicks, secure the money. Of course, any reporter in the game will reach out to ask questions, to which they will either ignore the response, to or ask questions they know that an organization cannot answer—such as regarding human resources and legal matters—and use that legislative restriction, which exists to protect people’s privacy, as a “gotcha” tactic that they use to say that an organization is hiding something, or is up to something nefarious.

The facts tell the real story.

Coming out of eight layers of scrutiny, including the Auditor General’s eight-month-long audit, all indications are that the NPCA is in the best state in its recorded history.

1. Grant Thornton: financial audit—Pass. (We are now engaging KPMG to conduct our audits. The same auditors as utilized by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forests.)

2. Dillon Consulting: Value for Money audit—Pass. They recommended conducting our restoration programming differently to enhance accountability (which the board has since done).

3. Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) audits—Pass on both HST audit, and payroll audits.

4. Performance Concepts: Review of NPCA operations from 2014-2017—Pass.

5. Ministry of Labour (MoL): Review of any HR complaints—Pass.

6. Justice Ramsay—Pass. Confirmed allegations and accusations are inaccurate and deliberately misleading.

7. OPP: No criminal wrongdoing at NPCA — Pass.

8. Auditor General —Pass. All 18 recommendations are in progress.

If you look strictly at the facts, not the narrative that certain journalists and special interest groups continue to force on taxpayers, you cannot possibly conclude that this organization needs to fire everyone and hire their own people. They want you to believe we are failing our mandate so that they can come in and bring in their own people, the same people the organization removed for unaccountability.

The irony is not lost on me. We have remained a responsive and open organization. I would challenge any other publicly funded organization to point out how they are more transparent.

Present

We are in the process of executing the second strategic plan in our history, the first of which was met with high marks for successful implementation. The issue at hand, I would suggest, is that the understanding-gap between what NPCA is legislatively responsible for and what people think we are responsible for is enormous. The NPCA is not an environmental protection agency; we are not a preservation agency; we are not the keeper of forests and trees.

We are a Conservation Authority, and we exist as prescribed by the Conservation Authorities Act. To put it simply, the NPCA — like many conservation authorities across the province —regulates development via a permit process.

Our mandate is:

To establish and undertake programs and services, on a watershed basis, to further the conservation, restoration, development, and management of natural resources; and as prescribed by provincial regulations: to protect people and property by regulating, and risk-mitigating development through reviewing and commenting on applications, issuing permits, and ensuring policy compliance within the appropriate legislative and regulatory framework.

Our mission is to implement our Conservation Authorities Act mandate by remaining a responsive, innovative, accountable and financially sustainable organization. I have included some further detail and definitions below for more clarity.

Niagara Peninsula Watershed

A watershed is a geologically defined geographic area of land that catches rain and snow, and drains or seeps into a marsh, stream, river, lake or groundwater. The Niagara Peninsula watershed includes lands that are predominantly drained by the Welland River into the Niagara River, as well as those lands drained by creeks and streams into Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. Our complex watershed covers the Niagara Region and parts of Hamilton and Haldimand. It is made up of homes, farms, cottages, forests, small towns, and large cities. Everyone shares the responsibility to conserve within the watershed.

What does our mandate mean, and how do we implement programs and services to execute our mission?

Conservation

NPCA practices conservation on all 41 of its Conservation Areas. NPCA manages and maintains its properties to provide diverse recreational and educational opportunities with the purpose of keeping the properties healthy for future generations. Examples of our conservation programming include: Grooming our properties to encourage healthy ecosystems, planting native plants and trees to improve our water quality and overall land health, offering campgrounds and educational-based day camps.

Restoration

NPCA improves or redevelops natural landscapes and habitats at its Conservation Areas so that they remain safe for humans, wildlife, and plant communities. Ecological destruction is usually the consequence of pollution, deforestation, salination or natural disasters. Examples of our restoration projects include: Designing agricultural buffers, enhancing slope stability, and the planting of native trees and plants.

Development

NPCA works within the framework that the provincial government sets to provide comment on the suitability of proposed changes or improvements to existing resources, and may recommend conditions based on Ontario Regulation 155/06: Development, Interference with Wetlands, and Alterations to Shorelines and Watercourses. Examples of projects on which NPCA provides comments, recommendations or permits include: New dwellings and alterations to existing dwellings, pathway, and construction compliance when work takes place on properties that contain, for examples, a shoreline.

Management of natural resources

Natural resource management deals with managing the way in which people and natural landscapes interact. It connects land use planning, water management, biodiversity, conservation, and the future sustainability of industries like agriculture. NPCA relies on a scientific and technical understanding of resources and ecology, and the life-supporting capacity of those resources. Examples of how NPCA manages natural resources include: hunting permits, building permits, and floodplain mapping.

My role as Interim CAO is moving the organization forward through this transition. It is my responsibility to ensure that we have the capacity and resources to complete not only the day-to-day operational requirements at NPCA, but that we also continue to implement the Auditor General recommendations and the Strategic Plan 2018-2021.

I want to be clear that it is not my intention to apply for the full-time CAO position. I will support the new board once they are appointed through the recruitment process of finding a new CAO.

 

While you’re here…consider taking out a Voice Membership to express your support for local journalism.

About the Author

The Voice of Pelham
Pelham's independent news source from the heart of Niagara.