Announcement comes on same day as Authority’s re-launch
BY VOICE STAFF
Last Wednesday, the office of Ontario’s Auditor General announced that it would carry out an audit of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA). At a meeting of the provincial public accounts committee, Welland MPP Cindy Forster, who has been a vocal critic of the NPCA, put forward a motion instructing the Auditor General’s office to “conduct a full financial audit” of the organization, a motion which the committee approved.
Criticism of the NPCA has come primarily from activists, who have asserted that the NPCA is insufficiently committed to environmental protection, particularly with respect to the planned Thundering Waters development on a Niagara Falls wetland.
It is difficult to keep allegations about the NPCA—and its defences against these allegations—entirely straight. Last year, activist Ed Smith released his “Call for Accountability at the NPCA,” which asserted the existence of various conflicts of interest and other grievance against the Authority. Smith was sued for defamation by the NPCA and by its former CAO Carmen D’Angelo (who is now CAO of the Niagara Region); earlier this year Smith counter-sued the organization.
Amid the atmosphere of swirling allegations, then-NPCA board member Bill Hodgson called for an external audit in January, an action that subsequently led to his censuring by the NPCA. Chair Sandy Annunziata said that Hodgson’s actions related to the audit request amounted to an “alleged impropriety,” and has repeatedly asserted that a lawyer’s report validated this censure, but has also repeatedly declined to release this report, citing issues of confidentiality.
In March, the Auditor General contacted the NPCA and offered its services to the organization, an offer that was not accepted. At the time, Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk said that, “It looks to me like they are defining their scope and objectives,” and that “our offer is still open. They may take a different course, and that’s OK as well.”
Annunziata asserted that the NPCA intended to participate in an audit at some point, and in April the board vote unanimously to engage the Auditor General to conduct a value-for-money audit. In September, Annunziata said that the board’s request “could not be accommodated” by the Auditor General, seemingly ending the discussion.
But after the Auditor General’s announcement on Wednesday, Annunziata said that, “We are grateful for the news that the Board’s request to invite the Auditor General to conduct a value for money Audit of the NPCA has been approved.”
He added that the NPCA would soon be meeting with the Auditor General’s office to begin the audit process, though Lysyk said that the actual audit won’t begin until 2018, with the results likely coming after the 2018 municipal and regional election in October.
Pelham Mayor Augustyn, who has been critical of the NPCA’s management, was pleased to hear that the Auditor General would be conducting an audit.
“Nearly all of the municipalities in Niagara, including Pelham, asked for an audit last year,” he said. “There have been significant concerns about the hiring of members of the board, as well as other matters.”
Augustyn said that during past discussion on the NPCA’s yearly reports, he has repeatedly pointed to management letters that call for changes such as the segregation of duties.
“Every year they say that they’re going to get to it, and it never seems to happen. So I hope that the audit can suggest ways for the organization to improve.”
Augustyn expressed his disappointment that the back-and-forth between the NPCA and the Auditor General means that the audit likely won’t be completed until after the 2018 election. “That’s too bad. These delays have caused that—the municipalities asked for an audit over a year ago,” he said. “When folks called for an audit in the Town [of Pelham], we said, ‘You know what? Let’s get this done quickly, because this is a concern.’ So it’s important for folks to act quickly in response to concerns.”
In fact, Pelham commissioned its forensic audit only on October 2, while allegations against the Town date back to the spring.
On July 24, Regional Councillor Brian Baty recommended that the Town commission an audit. Council’s reaction was varied. While Councillor Peter Papp seemed receptive to the idea, others were not. Councillor Gary Accursi said that he would not support a third-party audit. Councillor Catherine King said, “Quite frankly, I find the whole thing absolutely a waste of time. If the general public has that opinion of the Town of Pelham, then clearly they don’t listen to all of the awards, all of the progress, all of the development that we have undertaken, all of the praise that we’ve received.” Councillor Richard Rybiak asserted that those raising concerns about Pelham’s finances were either “people with an agenda who cynically put out a word that they know not necessarily to be true,” or the “victims of cynics.” Rybiak also asserted that Baty fell into one of those two categories.
News about the impending NPCA audit arrived on the same day that the Authority held an invite-only event—mostly NPCA employees and board members—at its Ball’s Falls headquarters, to launch a series of new initiatives. The projects include 100-year plans for both land and water conservation.
The NPCA, which presently manages 7500 acres, says that it intends to acquire 250 acres of land per year over the 100-year term. It also plans on planting one million trees and three million native plants over the next five to seven years.
The NPCA’s most recent opponent has been the Ontario Public Sector Employees Union, which accused the organization of union-busting after eight employees in the restoration department were laid off in September. On Wednesday, Annunziata announced that after extensive negotiations with the union, two of the eight water restoration staff would be returning to work.
NPCA board member and Pelham’s Regional Councillor Brian Baty said at Pelham Town Council in October that those layoffs resulted from an audit, the results of which indicated that there were inefficiencies in the restoration department.
“The finding was that there was a large amount of time in the year that no productive work could be done,” said Baty. “In looking at other communities, it was determined that the work could be better done through outsourcing to groups such as Trout Unlimited.”
Baty suggested further that the layoffs ran parallel with ongoing discussions between the NPCA and the Niagara Region over the allocation of conservation responsibilities, and said that, “There is a high probability that these positions will be hired by the Region.”