Ontario ombudsman André Marin criticized York Region’s three-day closed-door retreat during a Wednesday night panel discussion about the need for greater transparency in municipal government.
While the region has called the Jan. 28 to 30 session at King City’s Kingsbridge Conference Centre, at a cost of $12,000 to $15,000, an education and training exercise permitted under the Municipal Act, Marin disagreed.
Education and training should cover things such as computer instruction or briefing about human resources policies, not discussions about challenges and opportunities facing the region during this term of council, he said.
The issues councillors discussed at the retreat are city business, Marin said at the Behind Closed Doors meeting organized by the Toronto Taxpayers Coalition at the Sheraton Parkway Hotel in Richmond Hill.
“Now, why would you think that they would be so bold and brazen to manipulate this exception (in the Municipal Act) to fit within their own agenda of secrecy? Because they have nothing to fear (because there are no penalties).
“If I was investigating this, I would make up my mind pretty darn fast that it was an illegal meeting…They have nothing to fear because they have a watchdog which is not doing their job.”
Regional chairperson Wayne Emmerson, mayors and regional councillors have defended the retreat.
“It’s a pretty good deal for a corporation that has a $3-billion budget,” Emmerson said last month.
“It’s an opportunity for us to look at strategic planning for York Region for the next four years and beyond.”
On the broader issue of municipal transparency in Ontario, Marin complained most municipalities have chosen not to have an ombudsman, auditor general, lobbyist registrar and integrity commission to avoid criticism and public scrutiny.
“It’s not a pretty picture,” he said.
At the same time, Marin praised new legislation that will give his office more oversight authority over municipalities, universities and school boards.
The Accountability and Transparency Act, or Bill 8, was passed by the legislature Dec. 9, but has not yet been proclaimed so is not in effect.
While Marin said the legislation will give his office more power to oversee municipal ethical issues, conflict of interest concerns and individual councillors, the legislation doesn’t contain penalties for municipal politicians who hold closed-door meetings.
“It (the legislation) extends our jurisdiction to municipalities, basically all levels of municipalities, over everything except closed meetings, the secret meetings that we’re talking about tonight. They were kept to the side,” he said.
Up until the day the legislation was passed, the government had proposed giving Marin the authority to oversee investigators reviewing complaints of municipal closed-door meetings, but he said that was taken off the table at the last minute.
Despite that, Marin called the legislation a good step.
“I think there’s a lot of promise in Bill 8,” he said.
“We have to determine when it kicks in and we have to be ready because there is a very high expectation there that it will succeed, so our job is to make sure it will succeed.”
At the end of the meeting, Toronto Taxpayers Coalition president Matthew McGuire announced a new arm of the group, to be known as the York Region Taxpayers Coalition.
Former Newmarket councillor Maddie Di Muccio will serve as president.
Di Muccio said she is excited about representing the concerns of frustrated taxpayers in York Region.
“I’m outspoken. I’m an advocate, I care about things and I’m still a frustrated taxpayer, so this is fantastic,” she told York Region Media Group.