Local resident chosen to participate in invitation-only gathering
BY VOICE STAFF
The NPCA held a public consultation meeting last week, part of its ongoing efforts to address accusations of impropriety and concerns that it is neglecting its responsibility to protect Niagara’s natural resources. Jim Vanderhoek, a Pelham resident and the Service Manager at Beamer’s Hardware in Fonthill, was one of the members of the public chosen to attend the meeting after applying to do so.
Vanderhoek has long been a user of conservation areas in the region, and earlier this year went to a public meeting at which plans for NPCA’s Morgan’s Point were being discussed.
“I was surprised by the ‘corporate business’ approach to conservation,” said Vanderhoek, adding that it was something that he hadn’t seen before. He was bothered by the stated plans to make money off conservation areas, including discussion of capital investments at Morgan’s Point so that the NPCA could charge to host weddings there.
As Vanderhoek understands it, this change in the NPCA’s approach came with its first-ever strategic plan, which was conceived of in 2012 and applies to the period between 2014-2017. Todd MacDonald, of Performance Concepts, was the consultant hired to develop this plan, in which five areas were identified as being in need of change.
Vanderhoek was further troubled by the other issues that have plagued the NPCA, including the controversial hirings of David Barrick and Carmen D’Angelo, both of whom served unpaid on the board immediately prior to their ascendence to paid positions. Vanderhoek was also dismayed to see NPCA board member Bill Hodgson censured after he called for a third-party review of the NPCA’s actions.
All of these concerns led Vanderhoek to register to participate in the NPCA’s meeting last week. He termed the event “quasi-public.” The NPCA requested that those interested in attending fill out a form beforehand, which included basic information (name, address, email, etc.), and also asked which of the five areas addressed by Performance Concepts’ plan they would like to speak to.
A week before the meeting, Vanderhoek received an email informing him that he had been selected to participate. He then joined a Facebook group, “Save Thundering Waters Forest,” which concerns itself with proposed development near wetlands in Niagara Falls. There he learned that many of the group’s members had been denied their requests to attend. Having been denied, some requested to attend the meeting as spectators, only to be informed that the meeting was not organized in such a way that it was conducive to observation.
Linda Babb, one group member whose request was denied, received an email that stated “Due to the overwhelming response, I regret to inform you that the review session is full and we could not reserve a space for you.” But then, after 3 PM on the day of the meeting, she and others received another email that indicated that they could indeed attend, contradicting the earlier one that said space was full. Susan Erskine-Fournier, another who received the same email, was unable to attend having being given just a few hours notice.
When Vanderhoek arrived at the meeting, there were just six members of the public present, and the large conference room at Legends on the Niagara Golf Course was mostly empty.
After the meeting, board member Tony Quirk acknowledged the complaints from those who had initially hoped to attend.
“When it was apparent that we would have extra capacity,” said Quirk, “the invitation was extended to those who asked, but the timing made it difficult for those to attend on short notice.”
Quirk added that as a result, another session is planned.
“To address these concerns, the NPCA is hosting a second meeting on Tuesday, September 26. It will be necessary to register so that we can accommodate accordingly.”
At press time Quirk was not able to provide a link to the registration page, but said that he assumed it would appear at some point on the NPCA website.
According to Vanderhoek, much of the meeting was comprised of a presentation by the consultant Todd MacDonald, which reiterated the main points of his strategic plan and gave an update on its progress.
Entering the meeting, Vanderhoek was concerned that the NPCA was being insufficiently aggressive in protecting the wetlands in Niagara Falls. While the NPCA board members present, including board chair Sandy Annunziata, were reluctant to address specific cases, Vanderhoek was assured by them that the wetlands were already being adequately protected by provincial authorities, and that the NPCA was trying to save valuable resources by not doubling-up on the province’s protection.
NPCA board members present argued that the organization has extensive responsibilities—many of which have been downloaded on to it in recent years—which outweigh its resources, and thus it is forced to make difficult decisions about balancing sustainable development with conservation.
While Vanderhoek said that he felt, “sustainable development and conservation” are contradictory terms, he called the meeting “enlightening,” and that some of his concerns had been eased.
After a quiet summer, pressure seems to have intensified on the NPCA. On the first day of the Ontario Legislature’s fall session last Monday, Welland MPP Cindy Forster made a speech recounting the allegations of cronyism regarding the hirings of Barrick and D’Angelo. She also read a letter from former NPCA employee Jocelyn Baker, who alleged that she “supervised employees who regularly experienced workplace violence, harassment, unwanted comment, conduct, and behaviour including bullying” by members of senior management. Baker said that she was the complainant in three workplaces harassment cases, and the key witness in two other investigations carried out by a legal firm.
Forster said that on the previous Friday, two more employees at the NPCA, the manager of planning and the former acting CAO, “mutually resigned.” Forster implied that they were in fact terminated.
St. Catharines MPP Jim Bradley echoed Forster’s calls for provincial attention to the NPCA. Bradley asserted that the those who are publicly critical of the NPCA find themselves bullied and hounded, citing former NPCA board member Bill Hodgson, who was first censured and then subsequently resigned. Bradley also suggested that Pelham’s Mayor Augustyn, widely perceived to be a Liberal, was also the subject of bullying by regional Tories.
Niagara West – Glanbrook MPP Sam Oosterhoff voiced his support for Forster’s request for accountability, though he cautioned Bradley against involving political parties. “I think that we do have to be careful about politicizing this as a Tory-versus-Liberal or a Tory-versus-NDP situation. I have called for [accountability] in the NPCA as well.”
Oosterhoff said that he would like to see the Auditor General or an independent auditor take up this file.
Forster concluded debate on the matter by imploring Minister of Natural Resources Kathryn McGarry to take action and appoint an independent auditor to investigate the NPCA. “I think the minister has the power to appoint a supervisor to come in,” she said. “If she doesn’t, she should do it anyway. Something has to be done about this situation.”
Vanderhoek, for his part, was likewise troubled by the discussion of workplace abuses, though he was hopeful that the addition of a Human Resource department to the NPCA would help address the problems.
“They didn’t have an HR department until a few years ago,” he said. “And now that the employees have some unionization, hopefully the issues were just toes being stepped on during a transition period.”
Nevertheless, Vanderhoek maintains that the NPCA faces some structural problems. It receives its funding partially from levies placed on towns in Niagara, yet its board is made up of mayors and local councillors in those very areas that are to be levied, creating what Vanderhoek calls a clear conflict of interest. He was unconvinced that this structure was redeemable. The NPCA may soon face the task of convincing an auditor, too.