London, Ontario mayor Joe Fontana.
Credits: DEREK RUTTAN/The London Free Press/QMI AGENCY
LONDON, ON -- Ontario’s ombudsman shone a light Tuesday on the hidden practices of civic politicians -- and what he found isn’t pretty.
Nineteen cities and towns met in secret over 15 months, more engaged in questionable conduct and a few even obstructed investigation by Ombudsman Andre Marin.
“Some (municipal councils) are shockingly secretive, suspicious and resentful of the very idea they can be investigated,” the provincial watchdog wrote.
Politicians in London and Sudbury were singled out by Marin, who accused them of fighting his efforts to hold them to account for conducting public business in secret or under circumstances that drew public suspicion.
In London, politicians talked of “lawyering up” at taxpayer expense, one even decrying “a police state.”
Ten of 12 Sudbury councillors refused to be interviewed by Marin.
London city councillors demanded to know the identities of complainants to the ombudsman’s office, describing them as “sore losers.”
“Clearly, this behaviour flies in the face of the principles of accountability and transparency embodied in the Sunshine Law,” Marin wrote.
Sudbury council members were even worse.
“It was the worst failure to co-operate I have seen,” Marin wrote.
His report was the first of what he expects will be an annual accounting of how well or poorly cities and towns comply with Ontario open-meetings rules, which require meetings to be held in public unless the subject matter falls under a narrow range of exceptions that include labour relations and the purchase or sale of property.
Until 2008, citizens had one costly recourse -- going to court -- when public matters were decided in secret.
Since then, citizens can complain to an ombudsman -- either one hired by their own municipality, or to Marin’s office, which serves as the investigator for 313 municipalities.
More than 500 complaints have been received since, including 128 lodged over 17 months between April 1, 2011 to August 31, 2012.
Those complaints formed the report, and Marin found 45 violations of Ontario’s so-called Sunshine Law.
The investigations found some municipal politicians welcomed the review and suggestions to improve -- but others were downright hostile.
Marin also pointed to a weakness in the Ontario law that hinders his efforts to hold politicians accountable -- his office has no direct power to punish anyone, in contrast to U.S. states that can fine politicians or even remove them from office.
Marin suggested he may in future turn to a provision in the Ombudsman Act that hasn’t been used in its 37 years, one that allows for fines up to $500 and even imprisonment for up to three months.
“I am prepared to use all available means to ensure co-operation with my investigative process in future, to preserve its integrity and uphold the law,” Marin wrote.
One recurring problem was politicians gathering together outside council in circumstances bound to draw suspicion -- that happened in London, Hamilton and Grey Highlands.
“Municipal officials strayed too close to the edge of the law, violating the spirit of it, if not the letter,” Marin wrote of the meal-time gatherings.
He also pointed to problems that could be easily remedied, requiring councils to tape closed and open meetings and not allowing municipalities to charge a fee to citizens filing a complaint about a questionable meeting.