By NATE SMELLE, The VOICE
A standing-room-only crowd of 150-plus gathered for the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority’s annual general meeting at the Balls Falls Centre for Conservation on the morning of Wednesday, Jan. 18, calling on the Conservation Authority to invoke an independent operational audit. Over the last year, the NPCA has faced numerous allegations of corruption and mismanagement, stemming from its handling of public funds, employee relations, and from its promotion of the controversial idea of “biodiversity offsetting.”
For most in attendance, the thought of granting permission to developers to tear up and pave over ecologically sensitive areas such as wetlands, if the developers commit to building a replacement, does not fit within the mandate of a Conservation Authority.
Retired Royal Canadian Air Force officer and UN peacekeeper Ed Smith was one of the four delegations on the agenda at the AGM. When he first learned in the Fall of 2015 that the NPCA had been lobbying the province to use land in Niagara Falls protected as a Provincially Significant Wetland (PSW) for a biodiversity offsetting pilot project, Smith began investigating the NPCA and the Board of Directors steering it. After presenting his findings to Niagara Regional Council last November in a 45-page report backing up allegations of corruption and mismanagement at the NPCA, he was slapped with a $200,000 lawsuit for defamation by the NPCA. Smith said he was excited and inspired to see so many new faces in the crowd.
“From what I could tell they were all interested in the same thing — accountability and transparency from the NPCA,” said Smith.
“I’m very curious to see how long our elected officials on the NPCA Board believe they can continue to ignore the people.”
Standing before the NPCA Board and a room full of supporters chanting “Drop the suit,” Smith highlighted areas where he says that the NPCA has failed to fulfill their role as a publicly trusted advocate for the environment in the past three years. Listing numerous points of contention, Smith said the NPCA has violated provincial policy by hiring members of their board to senior management positions and by awarding a $41,000 cheque to a sitting member. He went on to assert that the NPCA also demonstrated a perceived reluctance or refusal to pursue serious cases of environmental wrong-doing perpetrated by developers in the Region, choosing instead to pursue much smaller environmental infractions that involve individual citizens or small landowners.
Smith also questioned why the NPCA chose to release one third of its staff and replace them with people of undefined qualifications. According to Smith, such decisions have led to the NPCA spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars on legal battles and severance package settlements. “Money that could have been spent on environmental stewardship programs,” he said. Smith also took issue with the fact the conservation authority spent tens of thousands of public funds to hire a lobbyist to convince the provincial government to allow Niagara to become a testing ground for biodiversity offsetting.
“The true strength of democracy is the governing policies and laws that define it, coupled with the ability and willingness of the institutions of society to uphold them,” Smith said.
“This Board and senior management have chosen a path for the NPCA that flies directly in the face of its provincial mandate and by so doing has violated the public trust that is enshrined in your appointments. The great thing about trust is that it can be rebuilt and it can start today.”
Smith has not been a lone voice in the wilderness calling for a third-party review of the NPCA’s operations. Nine municipal councils in the Niagara and Hamilton regions — including Pelham Town Council — have also requested an externally-driven audit of the NPCA. Welland NDP MPP Cindy Forster was another of the delegations addressing the NPCA Board Wednesday morning. Adding her voice to the call for a review, Forster urged the NPCA drop its lawsuit against Smith.
“This is about transparency, it’s about accountability and it’s about the truth,” Forster told the Board.
“As politicians, you should be encouraging and engaging constituents in the political process, and be more than willing to answer their questions without requiring them to spend a lot of money on freedom of information requests.”
Forster said taxpayers deserve to know where and how their money is being spent and whether public agencies are fulfilling their mandate.
Threatening critics like Smith with a “slap suit” does nothing to improve transparency or the public’s trust in their elected officials or the democratic process, she said.
Acknowledging legislation passed by the province to prevent “slap-suits” in Ontario last year, she asked the Board to direct its new chair to end the lawsuit against Ed Smith.
“If you truly believe a forensic audit is needed, then Ed Smith was asking the right questions on behalf of your taxpayers,” Forster said.
“Surely, as politicians from all political stripes, with thick skins — or maybe not — you cannot believe that taxpayers, or one man who served this country in a military capacity his entire working life, does not have the right to ask questions, or to speak out against the government and its agencies. That wouldn’t be a democracy in my opinion.”
Following the presentations, NPCA Board member Hodgson put forth a motion that would see the Conservation Authority initiate a third-party review of its operations. NPCA Board member Stuart Beattie said he supported the motion but suggested it would also be prudent to continue conversations with Ontario’s Auditor General. Concerned this would delay the process substantially, which would continue to negatively impact the public’s trust in the NPCA, Hodgson was hesitant to accept Beattie’s amendment until Board member Tony Quirk suggested pursuing the review by a third-party and the auditor general at the same time. With these amendments in place, Hodgson’s motion passed with a vote of 14-1.
In response, Smith said he was cautiously optimistic considering the outcome of the vote.
“Councilor Hodgson stood up to what must have been immense internal pressure in order to get that motion through and now we must support that by maintaining a constant vigilance on every step of the process. Now is not the time to stand down,” said Smith.