Assisted by a complicit CAO, MV Council flouts its obligations of transparency, accountability and integrity

EDITORIAL

Any investigative journalist searching for truth becomes used to stonewalling tactics aimed at hiding the facts. Individuals or companies who have potential negative reputational or financial consequences by sharing information will often decide that discretion is the better part of valour. Such self-interest is perhaps understandable so far as the private sector is concerned, but highly questionable when public authorities play the same game, especially when it prevents disclosure of their use, and possible abuse, of public funds.

The Current’s attempts to “lift the lid” on what happens at 85 Bay Street have been met with stonewalling from this Township and its Council from the beginning of our existence. As we reported at the time, even before we published a single report on municipal government activities, we were ordered by the Township’s solicitors to refrain from contacting Township staff so as to protect them from “harassment.” Information subsequently received from a whistle blower was that the instigator of that “injunction” was Councillor Ernie Peplinski, this happening shortly after he agreed to terms of settlement, which included an apology, of the editor’s HRTO claim. (The same whistle blower also subsequently told The Current what had, in any event become obvious: that we are the victims of a “vendetta.”)

Since that time, The Current has published more than 375 articles covering local municipal business. Of them, the overwhelming majority have been purely factual reports on Council meetings and related matters of public interest. A very small fraction of them were articles that fall into the category of investigative reports (all of which were clearly identified as being “opinions”); yet these have apparently been sufficient to justify an information blockade as well as public attacks on the characters of The Current’s owners.

Even more disturbing, CAO Suzanne Klatt – whose job requires her to prioritize the financial interests of ratepayers over attempting to preserve the personal reputations of members of Council – has connived with the elected body in its obvious attempts to interfere with the freedom of this particular member of the fourth estate. It has now reached the point where Klatt simply ignores our requests for information on controversial matters of public interest.

Klatt bears a heavy responsibility for the obscene amount of money for legal fees that has been paid to the municipal corporation’s lawyers Wishart Law, who were retained on her recommendation, in the unsuccessful attempt to get the court to throw out the lawsuit which we reported on recently. Despite Council being accused of abuse of power for maliciously targeting a community newspaper which operates on a not-for-profit basis, the only witness who gave evidence was Klatt, thereby protecting members of Council from being cross-examined. In her Affidavit evidence, Klatt’s excuse for not accepting the offer made before proceedings were commenced, which included a donation to charity, was that the requested donation would be a “penance” …

When Justice Doyle ordered Klatt to release relevant records she had refused to disclose and also to re-attend for further cross-examination, she instructed Wishart Law to appeal. That did not end too well as a Divisional Court judge who conducted a case management conference berated Tim Harmar of Wisharts for wasting the time of three Divisional Court judges and his clients’ money. The appeal was then quickly abandoned. If Klatt has not yet seriously considered her position, it is perhaps time that she did so.

One of the first things that the present Council did on the advice of the same law firm after taking office was to amend its Code of Conduct and Integrity Commissioner Protocol. This resulted in members better insulating themselves from complaints against them by residents, resulting in potential complainants being disadvantaged compared to most other municipalities in Ontario. At the same time they eliminated the standing Public Question Period at Council meetings. There have also since been published reports of improper compliance by the Township with its obligations under the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Personal Privacy Act (MFIPPA) resulting in costly and unsuccessful defences of investigations by the Province’s Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC). The most recent one of these resulted from advice given by Wishart Law to Klatt, who is also the Township’s Information Officer, which caused the IPC to issue a report that questioned the use of “an outside law firm/lawyer” and recommended that the Township “reconsider the frivolous or vexatious claim.”

Against this history of orchestrated secrecy and profligacy, we are now approaching the last year of the current Council term, so it is time to start thinking about the 2022 municipal election. Readers may recall that during the last election campaign, we provided an online “Town Hall Forum” which enabled residents to use The Current as a conduit to seek direct answers to their questions from municipal candidates. The Current’s only role was to provide the online link between the questioners and the candidates, but otherwise it remained neutral; nonetheless, the forum was boycotted by Love, Peplinski and former Councillor Shelley Maika. Starting this fall, The Current intends to provide a similar forum with the aim of opening up lines of communication between MV residents and their elected body. It will enable readers to submit questions on any subject to members of Council, each of whom also chairs a Committee with departmental responsibility and questions can be directed to the relevant chairperson as appropriate. The Current has written to each member of Council asking them to confirm that they will participate. Depending on the response, further details will follow in due course.

Image courtesy The Australian Independent Media Network

6 Comments

  1. Ann Pohl

    Thanks for raising this issue of local democracy. Your editorial also rang a bell for me. Last year, I was searching through old KHR bylaws for a completely different reason: to do with backyard chickens. Scanning all the years, I saw that KHR hired an outside law firm for a three year contract re: “Integrity” issues in 2016 (Bylaw 04-2016) and then in 2019 there were related bylaws (Bylaws 11-2019 and 15-2019, and I think 16-2019 was also connected to that…). I wondered how much was spent on this and what it was really all about, but my further online searching has not found any reference to rationale, outcomes or cost. That does not surprise me, sadly. Since moving into this area I have been thoroughly unimpressed with the absence of local democracy in any meaningful manner. I find it very top-down and not at all interested in what grassroots people think, want or say, unless PERHAPS they are related to the sitting politicians, who mostly have been SITTING for more years than can be counted easily. The grapevine tells me that the current KHR Mayor is finally stepping down at the end of this term. I wonder if we might have a local election that champions the practice of accountable and transparent local government that engages with all local residents on the issues of greatest concern to the people, not the politicians. They should be working for us, not working us.

  2. David Winfield

    In reply to Michael McCloskey:

    Ah, lack of transparency and integrity from some local municipal councils, raised again! My own attempts (The Current May 24, 2021) to penetrate Laurentian Hills’ very similar information cocoon, continue. Stonewalling Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Personal Privacy Act (MFIPPA) requests, to reveal how ratepayers’ money has been wasted, continue into a second year. Still, on a positive note for Laurentian Hills, disclosed costs to date of a mere $47,000 spent on a similar strategy to evade transparency and accountability, appear modest compared to those of MV Township. One may though perhaps have some sympathy for Wishart Law’s Mr. Harmar, reported by The Current as being berated by Divisional Court for wasting court time and his client’s money. By contrast, Wishart Law’s Mr. Cassan, counsel for the Town of Laurentian Hills in a similar type of topic, responded to the judge’s proposal to reduce public costs by eliminating another court appearance. Mr. Cassan opined that it was not a good idea to have ratepayers coming to council to discuss the topic at hand, successfully arguing, ‘I mean I certainly don’t mind appearing. I love your court’. A more skilled performance than Mr. Harmar’s perhaps, as another costly court appearance followed, with the judge not granting the Order requested, thus possibly paving the way for another lovely court appearance.

    D. J. Winfield

    Point Alexander, Town of Laurentian Hills

  3. Rand Dyck

    This being September, I notice that my property taxes have gone up, which I wouldn’t mind if this were
    due to improved services. But the township has spent an outrageous amount of money on legal fees to
    to try to silence Roger and Danielle Paul, who, as journalists, had the temerity to criticize the MV
    Council. That this Council and its bureaucratic advisers have no VISION is obvious to everyone; but to
    engage in this never-ending vendetta against the Pauls is total insanity. And they are not finished
    spending money on their lawyer yet. Barry’s Bay is a laughingstock, and I only hope better people are
    starting to think about running for Council one year from now.

  4. Pat Scott

    To say I am shocked would be a lie….I agree with Mike McCloskey. In the past no one questioned….the council were gods….but were they really? Only until caught. It is evidenced in this article that there are many many concerns that need to be raised. Crack the whip!

    Facebook/Sept.7

  5. Michael McCloskey

    This is a disturbing read and there is a lot to unpack:

    The integrity of municipal government is rooted firmly in having municipal staff who act for the public good, irrespective of political pressure. It also based on effective oversight of the staff via the elected councillors, who affirm their responsibilities and keep the staff in check. Actual media organizations, such as the Current, by virtue of asking for facts have stress tested both the Township of Madawaska Valley and my own Township of Brudenell Lyndoch and Raglan- and sadly our municipal governments are failing the test.

    I won’t excuse it but I do understand how they would fail. By and large, municipal bodies in our area have been relatively immune from ever being asked tough questions from the feckless and news averse local print paper. So, without the need for transparency these municipalities were never confronted with real time accountability. So when the Current arrived on the scene, asking councils about where the money went, or who was unprofessional during a council meeting, or why it is backtracking on last year’s policies, or seeking access to information requests- it was certainly an unwelcome shock and surprise. Someone was watching them work, for once, and with the use of the internet (gasp!) the general public had a means to watch them as well.

    Instead of changing how they do business to match the rest of the world, MV in this case attempted to retreat into an information cocoon- which won’t work no matter how many layers of legal proceedings, at public expense, are applied.

  6. Barb Cardwell

    And the nonsense continues. I would really like to know how much of our taxes has gone to legal fees for all these frivolous legal actions, while so many projects needing funding in our township are kept on hold. This is madness that they continue to get away with this.

    Facebook/Sept.7

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