Forster and Bradley talk scandal plagued NPCA in legislature

The Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority once again the subject of debate during Question Period at Queen's Park.

Both Welland NDP MPP Cindy Forster and St. Catharines Liberal MPP Jim Bradley commenting on the scandal plagued NPCA during debate on Bill 139, which deals with land planning appeals and conservation authorities.

Here is a transcript of their full statement in the legislature:

Tuesday 26 September 2017 Mardi 26 septembre 2017

Orders of the Day

Building Better Communities and Conserving Watersheds Act, 2017 / Loi de 2017 visant à bâtir de meilleures collectivités et à protéger les bassins hydrographiques

Resuming the debate adjourned on September 21, 2017, on the motion for second reading of the following bill:

Bill 139, An Act to enact the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal Act, 2017 and the Local Planning Appeal Support Centre Act, 2017 and to amend the Planning Act, the Conservation Authorities Act and various other Acts /

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Rick Nicholls): Further debate?

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Rick Nicholls): Questions and comments?

Ms. Cindy Forster: I want to be on the record: I’m not anti-development in any way. I heard the member just speaking about the need for small municipalities to have some ability to develop, but the situation that we’re talking about in Niagara is in an urban area of Niagara Falls. A huge—I think it’s a 400-acre parcel of property that was actually sold to a Chinese development company, with 96 acres of wetlands. They really do not want to follow the provincial mandate, and they want to develop this property.

Now, the chief deputy whip spoke about those front-line workers who are going to be laid off at the NPCA and how no one in management has been laid off. That’s correct, except that they actually had a mutual resignation of the director of the watershed program a week or two ago, but I’m sure that wasn’t without severance, so that was one management position that went.

 

The interesting part is that we also saw their draft budget for 2018 last week, and there’s no reduction in their draft budget overall, even though eight or nine front-line workers are going to be terminated, or laid off. But we saw an increase, actually, in the CAO and the administration side of the budget to the tune of almost $800,000.

 

It looks like they intend to hire a bunch more managers. The ratio of managers to workers after these eight are laid off will be 1 to 1: There wil be one manager for every one employee at the NPCA. Certainly we’re very concerned about that, that there aren’t going to be front-line workers available to actually do that much-needed work that these loyal employees have done for many, many years.

 

As I said, I think what we’ll hear is that the reason for moving the work back won’t be because it belongs to the region; it will be because it’s perhaps easier to get some things done.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Rick Nicholls): Further questions and comments?

Ms. Cindy Forster: I want to thank the chief government whip for focusing on the NPCA. But I have some more news hot off the press. As of 4:30 today, the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority continues to gut the workforce. They are now laying off eight front-line workers, perhaps nine: three in restoration, two planners, two ecological technicians and one event coordinator, as well as one vacant management position. They say that this is the work of the Niagara region and that they’re going to give that work back, although the conservation authority has been doing that work for 10 years in Niagara.

The proponents, the activists, will say that in fact it is a way to get around the development piece so that the conservation mandate is to focus on conservation and the environment and the region’s mandate is to promote economic development in the region.

 

The work that was at the NPCA under a memorandum of understanding for 10 years is now going back, so the employees will be notified at the end of the day today. What a tragedy for the Niagara region. These people are the people who review development proposals. They manage the watershed program and they issue the permits around development and around building.

 

We talked a bit about this the last time I was on my feet, about the workplace harassment that is going on here in the Niagara region—and I’ve got two seconds. I think the Ministry of Labour should be stepping in and appointing a supervisor to this workplace.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Rick Nicholls): Questions and comments?

Mr. James J. Bradley: I’m going to concentrate on the aspect of the bill that relates to conservation authorities, because, as you may have heard, we have much controversy surrounding the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, a controversy to which the member for Welland made considerable reference during her speech. She had the luxury of a 20-minute speech. I am confined, because of the stage of the debate, to only 10 minutes, but I will try to encapsulate what I’ve heard from constituents who have contacted my constituency office and those of the member for Welland, the member for Niagara Falls and the member for Niagara West–Glanbrook.

First of all, what seemed to have happened is that the regional council that was elected this time had members who were determined to change the role and mandate of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority so that it would be more development-friendly.

 

The role and responsibility of a conservation authority, as most people would understand it, is to protect the environment and the natural heritage. That’s the expectation, and the devotion of the employees to that has been well known over the years. But it was decided by some politicians that that wasn’t the way it would be, and therefore, we saw new appointments to the board of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority and a change in what was happening.

 

First of all, we saw environmentally-inclined employees being fired out the door and replaced with those who, no doubt, are less inclined to be protective of the environment, though time will tell whether that is the case. That alarmed many of our constituents, who were contacting our office to say that, yes, there are economic development departments of municipalities that have a role, which implies that they should be promoting development—and there’s nothing with that—but we count upon the conservation authority in our area to protect the environment and the natural heritage, and they were concerned that that would not be happening.

 

We also got complaints about the hiring practices. It seems that some of the senior people—this is the six-figure column, that they would be paid—who were hired for those positions did not go through a rigorous process. In other words, the conservation authority people who have informed me simply saw cronyism taking place. They saw people who were friends of regional councillors, who had the right connections, getting the high-paid jobs. Meanwhile, others who were doing the front-line work were fired out the door. Those kinds of complaints came to the member for Welland particularly, and to myself and to the other two members in the Niagara Peninsula.

 

That, of course, does not make for a healthy situation. We want the people who are most qualified. That is why you will see in the bill itself that there is a desire to see people with specific qualifications being on a conservation authority, rather than simply the friends of the people in power who make those appointments at the local level.

 

We were also informed of strange contracts that took place. Improper awarding of contracts was happening, people said to us, those of us who are local representatives, and they were looking for an audit that would look at that and other aspects of the operation of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority.

 

These are things that were brought to our attention and not something we initiated ourselves.

There were also allegations of questionable land deals. One that took place in Wainfleet seemed to be particularly strange in terms of the amount of money that was paid and the people who were involved and the connections to those people.

 

That’s what happened. The member for Welland and I were getting the calls about that aspect of the operation of the conservation authority.

She will remember as well, as she sits across from me at the present time, that the previous regional council had expressed grave concern about that particular land deal, but when the new council took over, it seemed to give it the acquiescent nod.

 

There was also the desire for an audit. People were looking for an outside, independent audit. Finally, the board of the conservation authority acquiesced to that, but it was only after a lot of pressure. We would have hoped for an outside agency; it would have been nice if the provincial auditor had chosen to do that. Certainly, I would hope that the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario is at least watching the newspaper reports of what’s happening, to see whether the authority is dealing with environmental issues as it should be.

 

We’ve had various municipal councils passing resolutions about the composition and the work of the authority in our area. This bill will solve some of those problems. It will give more power to the government to be able to set the mandate of the responsibilities of the authority. What has concerned members—and again, the member for Welland made extensive reference to this in her discussion in the Legislature—is the bullying that has taken place.

 

Anybody who seems to disagree with those in authority at the conservation authority—if they are critical at all, if they question some of the decisions that are made, there’s bullying that goes on. It was even aimed at the member for Welland, who, when she raised this issue, received a lot of flak from people in powerful places. A scurrilous resolution was brought before council to get attention away from the conservation authority and bring vengeance against the member—who had nothing to do with it, by the way.

 

The mayor of Pelham, Dave Augustyn, has people after him now. He had been critical of the way the conservation authority was being run. So one of the councillor says, “Well, we’re going to have an audit of your municipality.” An operative from Niagara-on-the-Lake, a well-known Conservative, is initiating some kind of action in the town of Pelham. That’s because the mayor dared to question those in authority at the conservation authority.

 

We had Kelly Edgar and a regional councillor from St. Catharines, Brian Heit, who were involved in a legal action, with a certain criticism taking place.

 

Ed Smith, who is an individual citizen out there, a concerned citizen, found that he was being attacked. He has had legal action taken against him. He criticized the authority, so now he is being sued by the authority for the criticism that he provided.

 

All of this is not good.

 

I would also say that another person I looked at is a well-known individual in the area. I noted when I made reference to him that you won’t find a nicer individual than Bill Hodgson, who used to be the mayor of the town of Lincoln and is now a regional councillor from Lincoln. When I mentioned that in the House, the member for Niagara West–Glanbrook nodded in approval of the fact that I had characterized Mr. Hodgson in an appropriate fashion. Well, he, as a member of the board, was critical and wanted to see an independent audit taking place. So what happens? He gets bullied, he gets criticized and, unfortunately, he made a decision to withdraw from the board, to resign from the board.

 

You always like people on the front line, who are part of it, to be able to make those criticisms. This is why I was welcoming the legislation. The minister, when the issues arose around the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, said, “Watch for a bill to come in that will address some of these concerns.” Whether it addresses them all, we will see.

 

Certainly, there are provisions within this legislation which give the province more authority to be able to deal with conservation authorities. We have some people in our area who refer to it as a “rogue” authority. I can’t say whether they are right or wrong at this point in time but, certainly, the actions that have taken place are a matter of grave concern to citizens.

 

I can’t believe the number of people, from a variety of fields, who have contacted me through the constituency office or, when I encounter them in public, are talking about the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority.

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The local newspaper, my local newspaper, the St. Catharines Standard, has done a very good job with their limited resources. As you know, now, local newspapers have very limited resources in terms of the number of staff they have to deal with these matters. It has dealt very extensively with the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority. I want to commend the reporters who have gone in depth to look at what is happening at the authority and have shared that with the public.

 

I wish I could speak about the other aspect of the bill, which deals with the OMB, because we know we need OMB reform very much. But because of the great attention being paid, appropriately, to the actions of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, I felt I should share these views with members of the House.

 

Again, I want to commend the member for Welland for her previous speech on this, where she, to a greater extent, was able to explain what is happening in our area and what may help to solve that.