Controversially equates being questioned with being “bullied”
BY NATE SMELLE and DAVE BURKET
Following the Niagara Region Audit Committee’s meeting held last week, Mayor Dave Augustyn expressed his disappointment in the committee’s decision to defer further investigation into Pelham’s financial practices until they meet again on Sept. 18.
The meeting on June 12 focused on a motion made by Port Colborne Councillor David Barrick that called into question the state of Pelham’s finances and their potential impact on the Region’s credit rating.
Addressing each of Barrick’s assertions, Augustyn and CAO Darren Ottaway pointed to “inaccuracies” throughout the motion which they asserted were “misleading and erroneous.” A series of motions tabled by Augustyn and passed by the committee took the teeth out of Barrick’s original motion, shifting the focus away from Pelham and toward all municipalities within the region.
By approving Augustyn’s amendments, the committee agreed to strike all 12 of the “whereases” from the original motion and remove a clause which demanded Pelham produce a management letter that its auditor did not issue. The committee also approved Augustyn’s amendment to another clause so that all area municipalities are called upon to develop taxpayer affordability guidelines, not just the Town of Pelham. Councillors Barrick, Volpatti, and Maves voted against the amendment.
After the meeting, Councillor Barrick said that he was only interested in instilling taxpayer affordability guidelines in Pelham to protect regional taxpayers.
Despite the committee’s decision to gut his motion, Barrick maintained that the allegations he made were accurate. Accusing Augustyn of “spinning the numbers,” he said every taxpayer in Pelham can see on their own tax bill how much the Town’s portion has increased.
“Their CAO confirmed Pelham has no taxpayer affordability guidelines now and they have shown no interest in committing to any moving forward — hence the outrageous tax increases under Mayor Dave’s watch and more to come,” Barrick said.
“If the Mayor cannot support the taxpayer affordability guidelines, perhaps the whereas section can and should go back in.”
Augustyn said that if Barrick truly cared about taxpayers in Niagara he would not have voted against taxpayer affordability guidelines for all municipalities.
The Region does already have its own taxpayer affordability guidelines, said Augustyn, but they frequently disregard it. “It’s one thing to have a policy and it’s another to actually do the work all the time,” he said.
“The region can say that it is following its taxpayer affordability guidelines but we’ll see at the budget meeting this week that the region is actually $4 million overspent this year, because it didn’t include certain things in its budget. So, at budget time, it follows its taxpayer affordability guidelines but during the year it has overspent by $4 million. Big deal, you have a policy but what matters is your spending.”
Augustyn said Barrick and the Region are using Pelham as a pawn in their “distraction tactics,” to draw attention away from their own problems.
Augustyn described Barrick’s motion as also being politically motivated bullying—tailored to send a message to other elected officials in the region to keep their mouths shut on certain issues, namely allegations of corruption at the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA). Augustyn cited Regional Councillor Tony Quirk’s comments to the Voice earlier this spring in which he acknowledged that there were political games afoot and what he termed a “tit-for-tat” between Augustyn and Barrick. Quirk, an NPCA board member, said he had been on the receiving end of 13 different motions at the NPCA, resulting in the appointment of an independent auditor.
“You start with the premise that if you live in glass houses, don’t throw rocks,” he said.
For his part, Augustyn objected to the NPCA’s hiring of Barrick as its Director of Corporate Services while he was still a board member.
“It’s clear that there is more behind this,” said Augustyn.
“That’s why I’ve also said there is bullying and getting back, because I’ve been critical of the management of the NPCA, and Councillor Barrick is the manager of corporate services at the NPCA….So, Pelham doesn’t have a management letter and yet they’re pointing to us as a problem, and we’re not. The NPCA does have management letters and does have problems so why wouldn’t they concentrate on those?”
Barrick says that his motion was not intended to “bully” Pelham. He asserts that the audit committee has conducted their review in a respectful manner. The matter has been deferred again, he said, because lingering questions remain regarding public spending in Pelham.
“I know Mayor Dave just wants to end the discussion so no one can ask him any questions, but this is a democratic process and the committee is not done its work,” he said.
“Being asked a few questions on how he’s spending public money does not qualify as bullying. That’s a cheap excuse to avoid being transparent and accountable. If he can’t defend his own record and doesn’t want to answer to the public he is supposed to serve then he’s in the wrong business.”
Councillor Quirk was likewise unimpressed with the bullying claim.
“If we bullied anyone we would be subject to a Code of Conduct complaint. If The Mayor or Pelham feels they are being bullied, I would recommend that remedy as they certainly aren’t afraid to file one jointly. However, the Town of Pelham provided a 335-page response [in March], a follow-up addendum, and then dropped their 2016 financials on the day of the meeting. I am not sure why they think we wouldn’t have questions or why they wouldn’t be asked. If they find that ‘intimidating’ then perhaps they shouldn’t have provided the information in the first place.”
Pelham’s Regional Councillor Brian Baty echoes this sentiment, suggesting that politics can be a tough business.
“Bullying depends on the words, the tone, the volume, the cadence and the posture of the speaker,” said Baty. “While I was not present at the Audit meeting, I doubt that those elements were present. Asking for clarification or further questioning is reasonable to result in public confidence that all proposed budgets, finances and taxes are reasonable and in order. In politics, if you throw hardballs you ought to be open to catching them.”
On his bullying claim, Augustyn says that Pelham isn’t the only victim. In his view, Councillors Bill Hodgson, Kelly Edgar and Brian Heit, and St. Catharines resident Ed Smith have all been targeted for speaking out about the NPCA.
“If you stick your head up and you comment anything about the NPCA, the police or what’s going on with the region’s finances, then they are going to hit you over the head,” said Augustyn.
“That’s not the way we should be doing things. That’s what they’re trying to achieve. They’re trying to bully others from saying these things. We are not going to back down to their bullying.”
It is time for Regional Councillors to stop fighting and start working together, said Augustyn.
“That’s what we need to do in Niagara and that’s what we need to do with this issue, and with all other issues. We’ve been fighting for too long on these things and now it’s time to say let’s work together to create success for all Niagara.”