Authority rules that in camera Council meeting okay
BY VOICE STAFF
The Ontario Ombudsman’s office has ruled that the Town of Pelham’s in camera meeting of September 5 met the legal requirements for an in camera meeting. The Ombudsman’s investigation began after former Councillor Marvin Junkin filed a complaint, alleging that the Council had discussed Town financial information that ought to have been presented in open session.
Upon his resignation, Junkin alleged that Council had been shown an audit on September 5 that its reserves had been effectively drained, meaning that the Town was $17 million dollars more in debt than it appeared on the financial statements.
Junkin also alleged that Treasurer Teresa Quinlin told Council that the province would not have approved the community centre project if it had known about this $17 million.
Three weeks after Junkin’s resignation, audit authors KPMG said that the $17 million dollar figure presented on September 5 was “outstanding” debt that the Town had to still acquire for past projects, not “unreported debt” as described by Junkin.
KPMG also revealed the Town’s precarious financial rating from the province in 2015, with the Town receiving five “Moderate” and two “High” levels of risk.
At a special Town Council meeting held in late November at E. L. Crossley high school, Town Treasurer Teresa Quinlin said that since September 5 the amount of outstanding debt had been reduced to $10 million. She has since said that it has been reduced to some $5 million.
Following Junkin’s complaint to the Ombudsman, the Town defended itself by saying that the meeting had been held in camera because the KPMG report was related to potential legal action involving a former employee of the Town.
In his ruling, Ombudsman Paul Dubé sided with the Town, concluding that “the discussion on September 5 was properly held in camera.”
“The information provided by the Treasurer was sufficiently necessary to fully explore the issues covered by the legal advice to fall within the exception for solicitor-client privilege,” wrote Dubé.
Dubé said that his office spoke to Town Clerk Nancy Bozzato, all Councillors including Junkin, and with the Town’s lawyer. Dubé also reviewed an audio recording of the meeting.
The Town was given the opportunity to review and provide comments on a preliminary version of Dubé’s report.
During last Monday’s meeting Councillors hailed the ruling as a vindication for the Town.
“As a councillor you always try to do your best and live within the guidelines of the act,” said Councillor Gary Accursi. “It’s certainly heartening to hear from the upper levels that we have fulfilled our municipal responsibilities. It’s unfortunate that some members of community felt that we were off base. It certainly gave a few of us some sleepless nights, because we do take our job seriously. I’m very satisfied with he report”
Councillor Richard Rybiak echoed much of what Accursi said, adding that he was grateful for the “objective and rational review.”
Mayor Dave Augustyn called the report a “comprehensive review of what happened that day.”
“It’s gratifying and good to get this behind us as well,” said Augustyn. “Our community has been put through the ringer for a number of issues, so it’s heartening to get a resolution.”
Marvin Junkin, who sat in the gallery during the meeting, said that he wasn’t surprised by the ruling.
“I figured that they had combined the two enough that the [Ombudsman] would say that it was fine,” said Junkin. “But the bottom line is that there was no reason that they couldn’t have divided the financial information from the discussion of the person.”
Proof of this, Junkin said, is that after he resigned, the Town actually did release an amended version of the report Council had seen on September 5.
“The bottom line is that the Treasurer started that meeting on September 5 by telling us that if the province had known about our debt situation we would not have been approved for the community centre,” said Junkin. “You could’ve looked around the Council table and seen the closest thing to jaws dropping.”
Junkin said that he does not regret resigning from Council.
“I had no choice, unless I wanted to be lying to the people who elected me,” he said.
“It would have been nice to have had some support from the other Councillors after I did. I know that some of them were uncomfortable keeping it secret. But I don’t regret it. There was no option.”
Particularly galling to Junkin is CAO Darren Ottaway’s repeated claim that he made his allegations “without evidence.”
“I didn’t have any evidence because they wouldn’t let us keep the report on September 5. They wouldn’t even let us take notes. I started writing some down on a legal pad, and [Clerk Nancy] Bozzato told me that I’d have to hand them in,” said Junkin.
“I was told later that they had no right to force me to turn in my notes, but I was acting in good faith. I thought that we’d hear the information, think on it for a while, and then [make it public]. But that didn’t happen.”
According to Junkin, Councillors had never before been prevented from taking notes during an in-camera meeting.
Junkin said that he was happy to hear that the Treasurer had reduced the Town’s outstanding debt from $17 million on September 5 to some $5 million today, though said that all of it should have been done publicly from the start. Junkin said that he believes that if he hadn’t resigned, the Town wouldn’t have revealed any of these detail, or would have revealed the province’s negative assessments of Pelham’s financial challenges—assessments that were received before Council voted to approve the community centre in 2016.
During the Council meeting last Monday, the Town received its 2017 audited financial statements from Deloitte, a month earlier than usual. According to Junkin, Treasurer Quinlin told Council on September 5 that it would be best for the Town to release its financial statements later so that they could be made to look better.
“I noticed during the meeting that they made a big deal of releasing the statements early, because I said that she said they should be released later,” said Junkin. “That’s just another way for them to further discredit me.”
The Ombudsman also ruled in favour of the Town on a complaint that Council had inappropriately discussed Town business during an informal gathering at the Mouse Trap following the September 5 meeting. It is unknown who filed this complaint against the Town, as Junkin says that it was not him.