Ombudsman asked to investigate alleged meeting in which councillors decided to drop him
Hot on the heels of a surprise decision to replace Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin as the city’s closed-door meetings investigator, Marin has received complaints that city councillors met improperly before the Feb. 12 council meeting to decide his fate.
Marin tweeted Feb. 13 that he had received 15 complaints about an improper closed-door meeting before the city council meeting.
“We r in the process of evaluating next steps and have no further comments on the
With the exception of Mayor Marianne Matichuk, all councillors voted Feb. 12 to remove Marin as their closed-door meeting investigator. The decision came at the end of the meeting, and it passed with surprising speed and unanimity rarely seen at the council table. Normally when such major decisions are taken, councillors ask for a staff report first.
The decision stemmed from a notice of motion from Ward 3 Coun. Claude Berthiaume, who said now was a good time to revisit the issue, since they were just past the halfway point of council’s term. Councillors not only voted to deal with Berthiaume’s notice of motion Feb. 12, they also voted to reverse the original decision installing Marin as the city’s investigator.
Berthiaume suggested hiring a new investigator, a firm called Local Authority Services (LAS), which is offered through the Association of Municipalities of Ontario and uses the London-based legal firm Amberely Gavel. One of the firm’s founders, Fred Dean, used to be Sudbury's solicitor. Currently, 129 cities and towns in Ontario already use LAS instead of the Ombudsman. About 191 municipalities use Marin, who doesn’t charge cities directly for the service, but pays for it out of his office’s existing $10 million budget.
All of Ontario’s 444 municipalities must have a private-meetings investigator. Acting on complaints from the public, the investigator determines whether a closed-door meeting was held properly. Permitted reasons for holding such meetings include consulting with the city’s lawyer, discussing personnel matters, selling land and training sessions.
In an interview in November, LAS President Nancy Plumridge said if Sudbury were to contract them to do their investigations, Dean wouldn’t be involved. “We have a policy at Amberley Gavel that an investigator cannot investigate a municipality that they were previously working for,” Plumridge said. “Most of our investigators have worked in the municipal world, so we’re very aware there could be conflicts and we’ve made sure we’ve addressed that.”
Amberly Gavel has a team of 10-12 investigators across Ontario, she said, and they are called in to handle the investigation.
Hard feelings between city councillors and Marin stems back to an investigation in 2009 of a meeting a previous council held to determine whether to return Elton John tickets councillors had purchased before they went on sale to the public. Marin cleared council of wrongdoing, but warned them they had come close to breaking the rules.
The relationship took a turn for the worse last spring, when most councillors refused to co-operate with another investigation. Council was cleared again of wrongdoing, but were cited by Marin as the least co-operative he had ever dealt with and threatened them with fines or jail if they refused to co-operate in the future.
A December visit to council aimed at mending fences only made matters worse, and led to a nasty exchange between Marin and city solicitor Jamie Canapini, in which Marin accused Canapini of giving councillors “bad legal advice.”
Ward 10 Coun. Frances Caldarelli cited that as one of the reasons to dump Marin, whom she said was “unbelievably rude” when he was in Sudbury.
“I think most of us would be hard pressed to think of a reason why we would want to continue that relationship,” Caldarelli said. “I think the Ombudsman probably means well, but I think he has very limited understanding of municipalities.”
Ward 2 Coun. Jacque Barbeau agreed, arguing it was time to move on from the “nonsense” that Marin brought. When asked about public reaction to turfing someone as popular as Marin, Barbeau questioned whether he really is that popular.
“I’m not sure his popularity is quite what he thinks it is,” Barbeau said. “If people think he’s that popular, go online, check this guy out. Look at what he does. Does he investigate and come up with the proper answer? Absolutely. But leave it at that.”
He also wanted to emphasize that councillors don’t have a problem with scrutiny or being investigated.
“If we have met improperly in camera, I want to know about it,” he said. “There is no punishment. We don’t get 50 lashes with a wet noodle or jail time … But we don’t need all the unprofessional comments that he tends to make.”
He also said it was disingenuous for Marin to say he conducts his investigation with no cost to the taxpayer. He can’t send his three-person team to Sudbury for three days at no cost, Barbeau said. And before Marin appeared in Sudbury in December, he sent someone to Sudbury ahead of time to ensure the sound system was good enough for broadcast.
“So let’s put the cards on the table and explain to the residents exactly what the cost is.”
Ward 12 Coun. Joscelyne Landry-Altmann also took issue with the cost of the Ombudsman’s investigations, saying it was unacceptable for Marin not to come up with a figure when asked by councillors.
“Well, as an Ontarian, that’s not acceptable, because as a taxpayer, this isn’t a free ride,” she said. “We’re all paying for this. His bad behaviour when he was here with the solicitor is indicative of how he likes to do things … Maybe it’s time to try something else.”
When asked about the public’s reaction, Landry-Altmann said it’s sure to generate a strong reaction.
“But they have to have some faith and trust in the people they have elected – and re-elected,” she said. “This was supported not just by myself, but by 12 others who were elected.”
Matichuk was the lone vote against, expressing irritation that such a major decision was sprung on everyone at the last minute. She said it’s one thing not to like Marin, but he did a good job with his investigations and had the trust of the public.
“I don’t think it’s going to go over very well with the public,” she said. “There are certain people we have in an oversight (position), and there’s a reason they’re there. I don’t think the public is going to be too happy with this decision. That’s the reason I voted against it, and it’s why I will continue to voice my opinion on it.”
After the vote, Marin took to Twitter to offer his reaction. When asked by Northern Life if he would change anything in the way he dealt with Sudbury city council, he said no.
“With some exceptions, Sudbury council is oversight averse,” Marin wrote. “It saddens me. It doesn't have to be that way but it is ... Opting out of (Ontario Ombudsman) oversight for the wrong reasons is the problem.
“When I said in (December) that it was the most difficult body we'd overseen in 38 years of “Ontario Ombudsman) history, I wasn't kidding.”