You can certainly tell a municipal election is around the corner. Throw a couple of Ombudsman’s reports into the mix and you’ve got yourself a manufactured Twitter powder keg ready to blow.
The focus of both reports is Carmen D’Angelo, the Niagara Region’s Chief Administrative Officer. First, a municipal Ombudsman investigated the hiring process of the CAO position that took place in 2016. Local media reports suggested shenanigans were afoot and so Council called in Toronto based independent lawyer Marvin Huberman, the Region’s Integrity Commissioner, to investigate. Mr. Huberman noted a few recommendations but at the end of the day, after reviewing more than 200,000 documents and interviewing 16 people, came to the conclusion that the complaints were based on “rumour, gossip, innuendo, hearsay of doubtful veracity or accuracy, misinformation (seen as simply false) or disinformation (seen as deliberately false)”. Based on the report, Council passed a motion to accept the report, apologize to the CAO for any damage to his reputation and to consider the matter closed.
Second, and most recently, another Ombudsman’s report; this one from the Ontario Ombudsman’s office. His report dealt with the seizure of a recording device from a blogger and a laptop from a local journalist. Both were left on and remained in the council chambers during an in-camera personnel session. The laptop was not recording the meeting. The voice recorder was.
Essentially chaos ensued when the devices were discovered. Witnesses say Councillor Dave Augustyn was the first to recommend calling the police. Items were seized and the blogger and journalist were told they must leave the building. The journalist was given access to his computer to finish filing his story so he could meet his deadline.
Since that time, those involved, including Regional Chair Alan Caslin and CAO D’Angelo, have admitted that they could have handled the situation better and in fact, with the help of staff, have developed and implemented numerous policies and procedures to deal with a similar situation should it, or something like it, ever occur again. This fact was acknowledged in the Ombudsman’s report.
“I take the events of December 7th very seriously and that’s why the Niagara Region moved to immediately implement reforms to our policies and procedures as was recognized by the Ontario Ombudsman,” said Chair Caslin. “As Head of Niagara Regional Council I would like to express my heartfelt apologies to those involved.”
Wanting more punishment, some people are now calling on Council to dismiss Mr. D’Angelo. Not based on performance over his tenure as CAO. Not based on a recommendation from the Ombudsman. But based purely on how he handled one incident that had never previously occurred in council chambers. It should also be noted that none of the councillors who are now echoing the call for the CAO’s dismissal or anyone else in the Region Chamber’s that night, suggested at the time that staff stop or do anything differently.
Three of the longest serving and most experienced Regional Councillors all agree that the future of the CAO should be best left to the next council. They also expressed frustration about getting stalled in controversy despite accomplishing a lot of important work that has benefited Niagara.
St. Catharines Regional Councillor, Tim Rigby, said the CAO and Chair should issue a more sincere apology but also said it was a chaotic night and “it was chaotic because of all of us”.
“At this point in the term I’m not sure that’s our responsibility to decide whether or not to fire (D’Angelo). It’s the responsibility of the incoming Chair and Council,” explained Rigby.
Rigby expressed frustration at getting bogged down on issues like this saying; “A lot of really good, positive things have gone on in this council term.”
Those sentiments were shared by Councillor Brian Baty from Pelham saying that a lot of good work has been done but unfortunately things like this drag on and take away from the real business at hand. “We are now in pre-election mode so people are trying to grab headlines,” he said. Baty too, admitted Council and staff could have handled the situation differently but to put all the blame on D’Angelo isn’t at all fair. “There were 50 professional people there that night who could have spoken up to alter the process,” Baty explained. “Collectively we need to accept responsibility and apologize. Not just Carmen and the Chair.”
Baty said they didn’t have the policies in place to handle that situation but since then, many have been developed and more are in the works. “We’ve learned from this but to say it’s an attack on the freedom of the press is histrionics beyond belief.” Baty said they were simply trying to carry on with confidential business in their closed session meeting. “A device was discovered recording a closed session. Should that have been taken? Yes, there’s no question.”
St. Catharines Councillor Bruce Timms agreed with his veteran council colleagues; “It should be the responsibility of the next council. It makes little sense to change the CAO this late in the term.” Timms noted that turning committee room four into a closed-session meeting room should help solve a lot of the problems and confusion when council goes in-camera.
When asked if the CAO should be fired based on his investigation, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ombudsman said, “Our work on this investigation is complete. We understand council plans to meet later this week to discuss the report. As the Ombudsman has noted, he strongly encourages that council consider and accept his recommendations as soon as possible.” Those recommendations did not include any discipline of any staff nor obviously any terminations.