Pelham Town Council votes to commission audit on Town’s terms, Councillor Marv Junkin’s call for broader scope ignored
BY VOICE STAFF
It was quiet in Town Council chambers at ten past six on Monday evening as members of the public began filing in to the gallery. Most councillors and staff were milling about in the hallway or in their offices. Only Councillor Marvin Junkin sat at his seat, alone, head down, looking at papers on the desk. The quiet deepened as the meeting’s start drew nearer, and the final few minutes before 6:30 were completely silent. The 15 or so residents in attendance—a large, but not enormous crowd— shuffled their feet, while councillors and staff stared impassively ahead.
The first part of the meeting went by without event, with every passing motion bringing the agenda closer to the main attraction: discussion of the Regional Audit Committee’s request that the Town of Pelham commission an audit of its finances.
Finally, after 45 minutes, Mayor Augustyn relinquished his seat at the head of the meeting, inviting Councillor Peter Papp to take over so that Augustyn could introduce a motion.
“Do you want me to read the whole thing?” Papp asked. Augustyn nodded.
In its preamble the motion stated what Augustyn has repeatedly asserted in answer to allegations of improper conduct relating to the Town’s East Fonthill land acquisition and development.
“The Town has provided complete details and answered all questions,” Papp read, “and disproving all claims and accusations made by a Niagara developer at Regional Council…despite these answers and complete documentation, some members of the local community continue to ask questions about the 3.3-acre Parkland Over-Dedication…. Council directs Staff to retain forensic auditing experts with KPMG to undertake an independent, third-party audit of all transactions and documents related to the 3.3 acre Parkland Over-Dedication.”
Once Papp had finished, Augustyn spoke in support of his motion.
“The one item that people have difficulty understanding is the matter of over-dedication of the parkland/dedication charge credit. People really don’t understand it. But there was nothing improper about it,” he said. “We were told that, and we believe it. This is the one thing that other people in the community, some of whom are here, just can’t figure out.”
The Mayor asserted that the only way to allay the fears of Pelham residents was to commission an audit. “Anything related to parkland will be looked at and answered,” he said.
Councillor Richard Rybiak, who seconded the motion, said he believed that, “the vast majority of our residents are great,” before lambasting those who have recently critiqued the Town’s finances.
“I don’t want to turn particularly negative,” he said, “but there has been a deliberate campaign of misinformation and editorializing.”
Despite Rybiak’s past opposition to a forensic audit, he said that the Town now needed to demonstrate its transparency to the public. “This audit is for the benefit of the vast majority of residents who are open-minded,” he concluded.
And then Councilor Junkin took the floor.
“It is only after much thought that I must vote against the motion,” he said.
“The motion is too restrictive, and it is incomplete. I’d compare this motion to an offer to give me a new truck. What at first seems like a great deal becomes less so, when I get a look up close. The truck has no engine, brakes, or wheel. It’s just a new body.”
Augustyn, who had been staring intently at Junkin, shook his head slowly from side to side.
“The truck is soon deemed unsuitable,” Junkin said. “I’d like to table an amendment. One just has to read the letters to the editor in the local paper or walk the streets of the Town to realize that a disquieting number of residents have lost trust in this Council.”
He read out his proposed amendment. Junkin called for a “full review of the so-called questionable land deal, including full and complete access to the Town’s financial records of the past three years.”
His amendment directed auditors to evaluate the total debt of the Town, and full disclosure of all development charges and how they were used.
“I can think of no better way of alleviating the worry in town,” he concluded.
Junkin stood and walked over to give his written amendment to Papp, who handed it to Town Clerk Nancy Bozzato, who typed it into the system so that it was projected on the screen. Before the proposed amendment could be debated, it needed to be seconded.
“Is there a seconder?” Papp asked Council. No one moved or spoke.
“No,” he said. “Your information has been noted. We have conflicting views. That’s the way we operate.”
Other members of Council quickly moved to discussing the issues in terms of “positivity” and “negativity.”
“We have done everything we can,” said Councillor Gary Accursi. “I’m not going to speak negatively, I’m not going to address the Hummel issue. We must move forward in a positive manner.”
Accursi clarified that he did not think that the proposed audit would stop the outside scrutiny of Pelham finances. “View my vote as a symbolic vote. Not because I think that it would solve a problem, but because we need to send a signal.”
Councillor John Durley took up the idea.
“There is no poison that will kill a positive mind. And there is no medicine for a negative mind,” he said. “There may be a member of the community or two, a developer or two, who still aren’t satisfied. But we’ve gone too far with this. It’s been asked and answered many many times. The audit is the only way to prove it to some negative people out there,” he finished, seemingly contradicting his earlier claim that negative minds cannot be healed.
Even typically quiet Councillor Catherine King piped up on this line of commentary.
“I know that no matter what we do, there will still be negativity,” she said. “This audit is a positive step. It will allow staff and us around the table to get back to work.”
Councillor Junkin’s argument in favour of a more comprehensive examination was not mentioned until Augustyn again took the floor. “I’m going to have to disagree with the analogy,” he said, referring to Junkin’s use of a hypothetical truck. “This audit is of any and all documents related to this issue, and [Councillor Junkin] highlighted one of them. That’s all going to be covered. I didn’t hear anything different that wouldn’t already be encapsulated.”
Papp spoke briefly before calling the vote. “It’s time to build on prosperity and positivity,” he said, sounding more circumspect than he did a month ago, when he demanded that the Region stay out of “Town business.”
“Are there things that happened that shouldn’t have happened?” he asked, somewhat cryptically. “Probably. I agree with Councillor Junkin. If there are things we need to remedy, then we’ll have to take the steps.”
“All in favour?” Papp asked.
Five councillors and the Mayor voted to commission the audit as Augustyn proposed.
Junkin raised his hand.
In addition to recommending the audit, Augustyn also moved that the Town reject using funds from developer Rainer Hummel to pay for it. His motion asserted that taking Hummel’s money would improperly allow a wealthy individual to exert influence on Town decisions.
“Do we want to be the type of community that grants wealth great privilege? No. We want to give everyone equal access,” he said.
Rybiak again provided a second, and spoke in support. “The Region made a motion outside of its jurisdiction. It’s essentially a stunt to bring attention to an essentially fake narrative,” he said. “It just feels sleazy.”
“I’m not sure if you can use that word,” cautioned Papp.
“Members may not speak in a derogative manner,” said Clerk Bozzato.
“Then I shan’t speak derogatively,” Rybiak said.
Junkin was again the lone dissenter, taking issue with the motion’s definition of “influence.”
“Mr. Hummel is not trying to influence any action,” he said. “He wants to look into something that’s already been done. He’s not saying, ‘Here’s $50,000, build this.’ Or, ‘Here’s $50,000, hire my wife.’ He’s saying, ‘Here’s $50,000, look at past actions.’”
Papp seemed to misunderstand Junkin’s point as one of procedure. While Junkin was evidently arguing that the motion ought not to say that Hummel was trying to influence the Town’s actions, Papp thought that Junkin was asserting that Council had already passed the audit motion a few minutes earlier, making any discussion of Hummel’s influence irrelevant. The two had a brief exchange, during which neither realized that they were misunderstanding the other.
“I’ll leave it at that,” Junkin said finally. “I just thought that I’d bring it to Council’s attention.”
Councillor Durley identified what he perceived to be a flaw in the motion. “The audit agreement will be between the two parties, the Town and KPMG. How could anyone else be involved? Whoever pays for the audit, it doesn’t matter,” he said, raising his voice. “There’ll be no third party, no fourth party.”
Augustyn explained that the influence portion of his motion referred to the suggestion from the Regional Audit Committee that the Region and Hummel should be involved in the process.
“That doesn’t appear in the motion. It didn’t come to us first.” Durley chastised the Mayor: “You went to the newspaper, and then surprised Council with this part of the motion.”
Durley’s frustration ebbed as quickly as it had flowed and did not affect his vote. When Papp called the question, five councillors and Augustyn voted in favour. Junkin was again the only voice in opposition.
After the meeting, Junkin paused on his way out of Council chambers.
“Things will be made more interesting at the Region, when they discuss this matter on Thursday,” he said.
“Council is no longer unanimous.”