Remove Council from process, says Pelham DEBT
BY VOICE STAFF
Pelham’s finances were again the subject of discussion at Niagara Regional Council, this time at its regular meeting last Thursday evening. After a long wait as other agenda items were dispatched at what seemed like a glacial pace, particularly to onlookers, most of whom were from Pelham, resident Curt Harley was finally called to the podium to make a presentation.
Harley’s purpose was to introduce Council to the advocacy group calling itself “Pelham DEBT,” whose mandate, he said, “is trying to fact-check all of the information that the Town posts.”
Harley said that members of the group are united by their concern that the Town “is not listening to people. We feel intimidated, shut out, and marginalized.” He made reference to remarks by councillors at last Monday’s Town Council meeting, most notably those of Councillor Richard Rybiak, who asserted that concern over Town finances was limited to very few residents of Pelham.
Harley waved a petition as he spoke.
“It’s more than a few. It’s more than fifty. It’s more than three hundred.”
The group’s petition called on the Town to conduct a comprehensive audit of its finances, and argued that the Town ought not to be involved in the audit in any way. Harley conceded that it may be inappropriate for a single private individual to pay for the audit, and said that Pelham Debt had formed a community audit fund to contribute to the cause.
“I’ve never met Mr. Hummel in my life,” said Harley, referring to the developer who at an earlier Regional Council meeting had offered $50,000 to pay for an audit of Town finances.
“This is about the residents of Pelham.”
As he spoke, a few dozen Pelham residents in the gallery behind him raised their arms and brandished personal cheques. Harley said that the group believed that they wouldn’t have had to come to Regional Council if the Town had been more transparent from the start.
Harley clicked to a screenshot from the July 24 Town Council meeting, during which Regional Councillor Brian Baty was reprimanded by some councillors, most forcefully by Richard Rybiak, for suggesting that an investigation into Town finances might be appropriate.
Harley then revisited a Code of Conduct complaint made by former Pelham Director of Planning Craig Larmour in 2014, which alleged that Council had “failed to ensure accountability and transparency in the sale of East Fonthill lands.” Larmour was fired.
Harley, who is a construction manager, went on to present a “change log” from the Community Centre construction project currently underway, a document that is intended to enumerate all alterations to a building plan after official approval. Harley obtained the log through a Freedom of Information request of the Town. On it, he highlighted $2.5 million dollars that he asserted had vanished from the project with little explanation.
“Where did this money go?” he asked. “We haven’t been given a clear answer from the Town.”
Harley said that Pelham DEBT didn’t know where else to go but to Regional Council.
“The Niagara Region has some ownership in this,” he said. “We need some help.”
Harley, who occasionally appeared disorganized and spoke stiffly, managed to make it through most of his points before he was warned by the chair that his allotted time was coming to an end.
Mayor Augustyn, one of Pelham’s two representatives on Regional Council, rose to address Harley’s presentation. Augustyn thanked him for appearing, and said that he had previously invited Harley to meet with Town officials, an offer that Augustyn asserted was not accepted. “That invitation still stands,” Augustyn said.
He agreed with Harley that there was widespread concern among residents about Town finances, and said that the Town’s decision to commission an audit was done after hearing this concern.
Pelham’s other Regional Councillor, Brian Baty, also thanked Harley. Baty said that he had heard from many residents of Pelham that the scope of the Town’s proposed audit was too narrow.
“I’ve said to the Mayor that the questions published in the Voice of Pelham this week ought to be answered by the audit,” Baty said.
Regarding his appearance before Town Council in July, during which Baty received a hostile response to his call for an audit, he said, “Much has been said about how respectful I was during the presentation time. I wasn’t respectful of the council—I was respectful of you, the citizens of Pelham.”
This triggered a round of applause from the gallery, in turn prompting the chair to raise his hands in a calming gesture.
Responding to a question from another councillor, Harley said that Pelham DEBT was demanding a civilian oversight panel for the audit, to be headed by a member of the group with a background in accounting.
Port Colborne Councillor David Barrick, who first raised the alarm about Pelham’s finances earlier this year, cited what he termed the powerful image of residents holding up their cheques. “People already pay a lot of property taxes, so to see them offering more is significant.”
Barrick said that he was happy to hear Augustyn encouraging input from residents on the audit.
“Your ask is involvement,” he said to Harley. “And that isn’t a big ask.”
When Harley finally left the podium, most of the audience followed him out the door. Before leaving, one woman leaned over the gallery’s balcony towards Augustyn’s seat at the end of the row.
“Here, David,” she said, holding out her cheque. “Take it.” Without speaking, Augustyn took the cheque and put it on his desk.
Immediately after Harley’s presentation, motions from the Region’s Audit Committee came to the floor, one of which called for the Town to commission an audit. Augustyn was the first to speak.
“[Town] Council recognized that there are questions regarding the 3.3 acres of parkland purchased. And so we have approved a third-party audit of all transactions and documents related to that purchase,” he said.
Augustyn said that the audit would be carried out by KPMG’s Senior Vice President Karen Gorgan. Gorgan had set up a KPMG email account specifically for the audit, Augustyn said, asserting that this meant any questions or information submitted will not go through Town Hall.
Augustyn said that he had asked that the questions published in the Voice last week be forwarded to KPMG, and said that KPMG would report its results to Town Council in November.
Councillor Gary Burroughs of Niagara-on-the-Lake, who had previously served on the Audit Committee, said that he was hoping to be appointed to it again.
“Ah, another victim,” said Chair Alan Caslin, smiling wryly.
“No, no,” Burroughs said, through the laughter in the room, before saying that he did not think Pelham’s debt issues were within the Region’s jurisdiction, which led to a brief rebuke by and exchange with Grimsby Regional Councillor Tony Quirk.
Quirk rose to question Augustyn on the Town’s proposed audit.
“Is the Town prepared to waive non-disclosure clauses so that former employees can speak freely?” he asked, referring to agreements that departing employees are required to sign in return for a larger severance package than required by law.
(NDAs, as they are commonly abbreviated, often prohibit ex-employees from disclosing anything about their previous work for an employer, or their assessments of an employer’s honesty or adherence to the law. According to sources familiar with the situation, former Treasurer Cari Pupo, fired this summer, has yet to sign the NDA offered to her, and is instead negotiating for a larger severance package.)
Augustyn didn’t have a clear answer for Quirk.
“I haven’t considered this, and neither has Council,” he said. “Can the auditor talk to former employees? I don’t know. It might not need to, since all of the documents would already be there.”
Augustyn encouraged Quirk to suggest this to KPMG. Quirk, who is chair of the Audit Committee, closed by saying that the committee would continue to discuss the matter.
According to a Town news release, and an advertisement appearing on page 13 of this issue of the Voice, KPMG will collect input from Pelham residents only until October 17, less than a week from today. Questions may be submitted to [email protected]