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Longer leash for watchdog welcome

By: Darren MacDonald - Sudbury Northern Life

 | Mar 17, 2014 - 3:27 PM |
Ontario Ombudsman André Marin stands to gain oversight not just of closed-door meetings investigations at the City of Greater Sudbury, but general oversight of municipalities, school boards and universities. File photo.

Ontario Ombudsman André Marin stands to gain oversight not just of closed-door meetings investigations at the City of Greater Sudbury, but general oversight of municipalities, school boards and universities. File photo.

When Sudbury city council voted 12-1 to fire Ontario Ombudsman André Marin a little more than a year ago, no doubt, they felt certain that no matter how much bad press they would have to endure, at least they would be rid of him.

Despite the drama that followed — three councillors switched their vote, Marin turned to Twitter to attack Sudbury’s “rogue” politicians, the GSTA collected 9,000 postcards calling for his return — it seemed there was little that could be done until the next municipal election.

So news the province intends to give him oversight not just of closed-door meetings investigations, but general oversight of municipalities, school boards and universities, must have been shocking to our local politicians. Love him or hate him, the ombudsman is tough to ignore.

He revels in a fight, and takes on all challengers with the intensity of a junkyard dog protecting his turf. Read his Twitter timeline if you want to see how ready he is to take anyone who questions his authority.

These are good qualities in an ombudsman, although the take-no-prisoners approach always struck me as over the top in enforcing Ontario’s open meetings rules. As much as some in the public believe the law is capable of fighting backroom corruption or shady deals, in reality, it’s the municipal equivalent of a parking ticket.

The intent of the open meeting law is to ensure messy council arguments play out in public. At one time, councils would close committee meetings to have tough discussions and votes, and then pass the minutes of these meetings with little debate in public.

So it was good news when the open meetings rules were strengthened to ensure councils knew and followed proper procedures when closing a meeting to the public. But, they were never intended — or were capable of — fighting corruption or catching a crooked politician.

Councillors who are determined to circumvent the laws need only use their phones to contact each other. Or meet collectively at someone’s house, instead of a restaurant.

Unless we’re going to start wiretapping our politicians, and putting cameras in their houses, the open meetings law isn’t capable of catching crooks.

So all the clamour over the ombudsman’s investigations in Sudbury became something of a soap opera — lots of drama that meant very little. To use Marin to find out whether a council held an improper closed-door meeting always struck me as bringing a howitzer to a wrestling match.

But expanding his oversight into areas that genuinely need Marin’s dogged investigative skills and authority is a different matter. We have lots of examples in Sudbury where public officials have made bad policy, but citizens (media included) have had no real recourse. Some examples:

- One school board in Sudbury tried to stop people from recording their public meetings.

- For some archaic reason, it’s against the rules for reporters to record hospital board meetings.

- City councillors voted to give themselves direct spending control of $50,000 a year in their wards.

- City officials are bringing in the most restrictive security procedures for the media and staff in Northern Ontario — not because of an incident or event a series of incidents, but because they can.

So bringing Marin into a realm where the issues are more serious and his muscular, fearless approach is needed, is a good thing.

And, as Ward 8 Coun. Fabio Belli said recently, city councillors would be much better off enduring Marin’s colourful criticisms with a smile, even if through clenched teeth. Allowing him to become their nemesis has only benefited Marin, and hurt their standing in the public eye.
Darren MacDonald

Darren MacDonald

Staff Writer

@Darrenmacd

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