Some 400 pages of supporting documentation now in provincial hands
BY VOICE STAFF
A petition signed by 213 Pelham residents calling for an investigation of Town finances, a request supported by Regional Council last month, has been delivered to the office of the Minister of Municipal Affairs in Toronto.
Curt Harley, a member of Pelham DEBT and a construction manager who works in the city, dropped it off at Minister Bill Mauro’s office last week.
“We were trying to nail down the minister himself, but they’re hard to get ahold of,” said Harley. “But I dropped it off with a staffer in his office, and she looked through it while I was there. She seemed taken aback by all of the evidence that was in there.”
The request invokes a little-known portion of the Municipal Act, which allows for the province to look into a municipality if at least 50 residents sign a petition. According to Harley, the Pelham petition acquired its 213 signatures in little over 24 hours.
“We had it at the November 29 [KPMG presentation] meeting at E.L. Crossley, because we thought there was going to be an opportunity to deliver it in early December,” said Harley. “That didn’t happen, but we still got all of the signatures then.”
Harley said that DEBT had circulated another petition earlier in the fall calling for an independent audit of Town finances, which included DEBT’s offer to pay for the audit. Harley said that after the Town “pulled a trick” by commissioning its own limited-scale review of just the 3.3 acre land deal, residents looked to the clause in the Municipal Act.
Even KPMG’s report on the 3.3 acre land deal, which was commissioned by the Town, raised further questions, as KPMG concluded only that it was “unsure” as to whether the Town’s scheme to buy land with credits violated any bylaws or other legislation.
After the Town commissioned this report in early October, Councillor Marvin Junkin resigned his seat and alleged that the Town was $17 million dollars deeper in debt than previously disclosed. While KPMG later said that this was not unreported debt, and that the figure had been amended to $10 million, the firm did reveal that the Town had spent its reserve funds instead of taking loans.
Effectively, said accounting experts consulted by the Voice, this practice artificially lowered the Town’s disclosed financial liabilities. One expert thought it likely the Town would have required special approval from the Ontario Municipal Board for the community centre loans it sought if the reserve usage had been fully disclosed.
When Regional Council voted to support the motion supporting DEBT’s petition, Audit Committee Chair Tony Quirk said, “We [the Region] signed off on a $37 million debenture with information that was not accurate.”
Harley says that the issue has “never been about political opposition or the building of a community centre. This is all about how things are being done.”
“We should be celebrating in our community,” said Regional Councillor Brian Baty at Council, pointing to the upcoming opening of the community centre. “But instead, we’re hurting.” Baty said that he hoped that a provincial investigation would begin a “healing process” for the town.
Harley said that members of DEBT come from diverse political backgrounds.
“There are NDPers, Liberals, PCs, atheists, non-atheists, business people, farmers,” he said.
Despite this, he said that he and others are concerned that the Minister’s decision could be political, considering Mayor Dave Augustyn’s widely presumed connections to the governing Liberal Party.
“You know that’s the way these things work,” he said. “I’m sure he’s been busy on the phone trying to get this ignored.”
But Harley said that he’s optimistic that some form of investigation will occur.
“We’re hopeful that all the evidence in that binder—the KPMG reports, the news analysis, all of that—will cause someone to raise an eyebrow.”
Tony Quirk was in Toronto last week for the Ontario Good Roads Association meeting, and arranged for a package to be sent to Progressive Conservative Municipal Affairs Critic Ernie Hardemand, as well as copy of the petition to be sent to Niagara West – Glanbrook MPP Sam Oosterhoff.
“I can say that the staff at the Ministry [of Municipal Affairs] was pretty impressed by the package,” said Quirk.
Harley said that it’s hoped that both Oosterhoff and Hardemand will bring the matter to the house floor, even if Mauro’s office is slow to act.
Harley said that his first questions arose about the Town’s actions during the lead-up to the community centre’s approval in the spring of 2016.
“It didn’t make sense how Petroff Architects and Ball Construction were already so involved in a project that wasn’t even a project yet,” said Harley. “It was a nearly complete design and it hadn’t even been to Council.”
Harley said that he was further troubled by the Town’s action at an open house for community input. According to Harley, he put a sign in his car window and parked it near the entrance to the meeting, so that residents walking in would have to see it.
“It wasn’t anything defamatory, it was just harmless,” he said. “But Nancy Bozzato came out and saw it, and then the Mayor poked his head out, and the next thing I knew the Fire Chief had come and parked a Town pickup on part of the sidewalk just to block the view of my sign. I thought then, ‘Is this really what this has come to?’”
Harley also condemned Augustyn’s suggestion that it was Regional Councillors stoking residents concerns about Pelham finances.
“I’m not trying to sell it—but this thing really does come from the grassroots,” he said. “If it weren’t for all the people we have helping out on this, none of it would be possible.”
Harley said that as the province considers the petition, he and other signatories will continue to observe the Town’s actions, particularly the ongoing efforts to sell 18 acres of land on Rice Road.
After Regional Council voted in February to support the residents’ petition, Town Public Relations and Marketing Specialist Marc MacDonald released a statement on the prospect of a provincial investigation.
“Unfortunately, Regional Council’s attempt to initiate yet another frivolous investigation will burden Pelham taxpayers with a huge, unnecessary expense,” wrote MacDonald. “Council and staff remain committed to our common vision that Pelham becomes the most vibrant, innovative, and caring community in Niagara.”