Two local MPP's continue to raise Niagara issues of concern at Queens Park
The concerns of Niagara residents about politics in the region continue to hit the floor of Queens Park.
For the second day in a row, both Welland NDP MPP Cindy Forster and St. Catharines Liberal MPP Jim Bradley spoke about issues surrounding environmental protection and conserving watershed.
Ultimately both MPP's touched on the controversy surrounding the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority and Regional politicians that sit on the NPCA board of directors.
Both MPP's discussed how anyone who seems critical of the NPCA seems to be punished or bullied.
Below is the full text of their comments at Queens Park.
Orders of the Day
LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY OF ONTARIO
Wednesday 6 December 2017
Building Better Communities
and Conserving Watersheds
Ms. Cindy Forster: It’s a pleasure to rise to speak a little bit to Bill 139. I’m happy that the minister is here from MNR, and that our member from St. Catharines is here as well, as he had a few minutes yesterday to actually speak on this bill, 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.
I’m going to keep my comments to the conservation part of the bill. I want to spend my time actually speaking to the amended legislation, to the conservation act, and perhaps some of its application to conservation authorities, particularly in the Niagara area, having been involved with this file for the last four or five years.
I want to start, though, by talking a bit about the Thundering Waters project. I’m going to quote a bit from Kelly Bennett, from a CBC News post back in August. Last summer, activists in Niagara Falls were camping in Thundering Waters, “sharing a habitat with the blue spotted salamanders and black gum trees.” They are concerned about these being threatened by a proposed development called Paradise. They’re in this 484-acre park threatened by a proposed development called Paradise. They’re in this 484-acre park near Marineland and it has a mix of habitats, landscapes, Carolinian forest, swamplands, grasslands, a savannah section and 95-hectares of provincially significant wetlands.
Now, to the government’s credit, they haven’t moved off their provincial policy statements with respect to provincially protected wetlands. I can tell you that you the activists and the people who actually care about our ecosystem and the environment are happy about that. But there are still lots of reports and investigations and studies going on. This project has been in the works for almost two years.
The activists are worried that even though some of the lands will be protected, it may actually box in the species that have flourished in this 484-hectare piece of property.
The article also spoke to Hamilton joining a call for the province to investigate the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority and as recently as last Monday, I believe it was, the city of Port Colborne had a council meeting where there were many activists out also calling on the government once again to appoint a supervisor, even though we are in third reading of this bill.
Certainly, New Democrats put forward a proposal to have a supervisor appointed in those rare occasions that we need one, like we do in hospitals and schools and other agencies. Unfortunately, the government didn’t see fit to include that. I’m sure that over the coming months, there will be other municipalities supporting Port Colborne’s call for a supervisor.
Now, the activists say that local politicians, they believe, have not been as transparent as they could have been. The Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority recommended a process called biodiversity offsetting. The government at one point, in a white paper, had asked for comments from conservation authorities across the province. The NPCA bit on that ask and wanted to try and use this 484-hectare parcel as an area where they could do a pilot on biodiversity offsetting, but environmentalists have decried that issue and, so far, the attention has only resulted in the province designating more wetlands within this parcel. And that’s good news.
The conflict there has pitted local activists and local politicians, and our local conservation authority as well. That has led to a lot of controversy around our conservation authority in Niagara: Are you in the development business or are you in the conservation business? That has led to numerous freedom of information requests through that agency. I heard yesterday, in a newspaper article, that the requests have gone from five a year to 36 last year, and they’re having difficulty keeping up with those freedom of information requests. Many of them are being denied or they’re being, in some cases, redacted, blacked out, and that is problematic, I think, for the people who are trying to get the information they need to try and ante up their lobby efforts on this particular project, and on the NPCA in general.
Now, back in the day—it was probably now a couple of years ago—the mayor of Niagara Falls asked the Premier to witness the signing of a memorandum for this Chinese developer to come in and develop this property. The Chinese developer ended up buying that property from Mountainview Homes. They have a significant investment in there now, but they don’t seem to be making much progress with respect to wanting to vary from the current rules this week, in our local papers, Mr. Hodgson is quoted, having talked to the local press to say that he’s been trying to get the Gowling report. That was the law firm that was representing Mr. Hodgson when he was censured. He was trying through an FOI ??request to get that report. The NPCA is refusing to give him the report that led to his censure. Eventually he resigned from that board.
Now, Mr. Brickell, who is the new CAO, is quoted at the finance committee meeting at the region this week as saying, “We’re developing a strategy to reach out to even the most disenchanted members of our community.” At the same time he is saying this, they are denying Mr. Hodgson the right to see the report that censured him and led to his resignation. Right after they said that, four of the board members who also sit on the finance committee at the region—there are board members at the NPCA and they sit on the finance committee—voted against allowing Ed Smith to make a presentation. I see this is kind of like a Peyton Place saga. It’s this week’s drama.
Now, Ed had asked to get on the agenda of the finance committee. He asked to speak to the budget process of the NPCA. Their budget was on the agenda for the region and he asked to have the right to speak to it, in light of the fact that they had sued him and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayers’ money suing him as well as suing a former employee and the legal costs that will go along with that, perhaps the personal legal costs of other people who may have been involved.
They had his presentation in advance. They never told him not to appear. But he showed up at the meeting and then they said, “Oh, no, you can’t speak. We don’t like your presentation. You need to change your presentation and then we will consider letting you speak.” He said of course he wasn’t prepared to change his presentation. In fact, he had just had a lawsuit decision several weeks ago that said that as taxpayers, as citizens in our community, we have the right to ask questions. We have the right to make comments and we have the right elicit answers from our elected officials.
They sue him. Superior Court judge Ramsay—very well respected—gave a scathing decision on the NPCA. Still, he arrives at this regional council meeting to make a representation on the new budget of the NPCA and he is denied the right to make that presentation. The communication isn’t improving. That strategy isn’t working, so I would say you need to get yourself a new strategy.
All people really want in Niagara—and I think all of you will agree, probably in any of your ridings is transparency. They want accountability, they want integrity and they want trust when people are spending their tax dollars and developing programs or services in the community. Unfortunately, they are not getting that in this agency.
We’ve talked about this a lot, certainly at the committee level I tried to address some of those issues ??about the appointment of a supervisor. I raised the issues, as did the member from St. Catharines, about appointments to jobs when you were sitting as a board member, and all you have to do is take a leave of absence and then you are appointed to the top jobs with the agency that you are supposed to be the watchdog on. You end up with the top job as the CAO or the director of operations.
There is something wrong with that, when those kinds of things happen. That’s what we used to call the old boys’ club. I think it’s still There’s something wrong with that, when those kind of things happen. That’s what we used to call the old boys’ club, and I think it’s still alive and well.
Mr. James J. Bradley: Cronyism.
Ms. Cindy Forster: Cronyism. Yes, maybe cronyism. It’s still alive and well there.
I raised these issues because I think that through the process of amending the conservation act—which hasn’t been amended for quite some time—we could have addressed some of these issues. I even went so far as to put an amendment that would have seen—if I’m a city employee and I run for city councillor in that city, I then have to resign my position as a city employee. I even went as far as to try to make the stretch that if you are an employee of the conservation authority, because you are getting provincial dollars, regional dollars and local municipal dollars, if you run for a regional council seat, you then should have to give up your position, where you’re basically all publicly funded dollars. But that was a bit of a stretch—I get it—because you’re not an employee of the local municipality providing those funds, or of the province. But it is problematic when we, as legislators, have to go to that length to try to address some of these issues.
I know the member from Lanark–Frontenac–Lennox and Addington yesterday talked about the amendments to the conservation act being all about Niagara. Well, I can assure you they’re not. I sat through a couple of days of those amendments, and many of the amendments address issues across this entire province. They’re not just about the Niagara Peninsula.
We need to find a way to continue to address these concerns, and that is why I continue to raise the issues here in the Legislature and locally in our newspaper: Because people are very concerned. I go back to this Thundering Waters project. This is just one of the land issues that have been of concern over the four or five years that I’ve been closely following the NPCA with respect to property issues in the Niagara Peninsula. There have been other property issues in other parts of my riding, as I’m sure there have been in other parts of the peninsula, that just didn’t pass that test. That happened. Even in this case, Mountainview Homes held onto that property for probably 20 years in Niagara Falls, and now it is being sold for a huge amount of money, with promises to a developer that probably are not going to be able to be achieved. I just hope that the MNR sticks to their guns and makes sure that we protect this, one of, I think, only two pieces of forest and wetlands that actually remain in that part of the peninsula.
The Acting Speaker (Mr. Paul Miller): Questions and comments?
Mr. James J. Bradley: I want to commend the member for once again sharing with the Legislature and the audience that may be watching her concerns and the concerns that both she and I have received from constituents in the Niagara area about things that are happening at the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority.
Certainly, the freedom-of-information requests that have been out there are ones that should be responded to in a very positive fashion, including that of Ed Smith, who has been a crusader in this regard—just an average citizen who decided to take upon himself the issues that are confronting the authority.
As the member has mentioned, what essentially has happened is that people who are pro-development have been taking over the leadership of the authority, and those who are more environmentally inclined have been given the pink slip to head out the door, and have been silenced as well with agreements that compel them not to say anything about it. I want to commend the member for that.
She mentions John Bacher, who is an excellent environmentalist. He has run against me as a New Democratic Party candidate—a very good candidate. He has been the heart and soul, along with Gracia Janes environmentalist. He has run against me as a New Democratic Party candidate, a very good candidate, has been the heart and soul, along with Gracia Janes in recent years, of the Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society.
She mentions Bill Hodgson who was bullied off the board. I hope Bill will run for office once again, if he doesn’t get bullied out of the field of politics by the bullies who have been attempting to do that to him.
The member herself has been a victim of reprisals and intimidation and bullying, even to the point where they tried to attribute to her something she had nothing to do with. They brought it to regional council. It was a resolution that had nothing to do with the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority. They thought they could embarrass her; they thought they could silence her. They have not done so, and we see an example of that again this afternoon.
Ms. Cindy Forster: Thank you to everyone who commented.
Yes. I think there have been some pieces put into the bill that, hopefully, when the regulation is put in place, will address some of the concerns that I raised and that the member from St. Catharines raised during those committee hearings—being able to request information, being able to require reports to be written by the conservation authorities and the piece around the bylaws. I think they will go some way to addressing some of those issues.
I’m really concerned, though, about the number of tax dollars—people’s tax dollars. There’s only one taxpayer in this province, whether you are paying municipal or federal taxes. I’m really concerned about significant amounts of tax dollars being paid by this agency and others around FOI’s—trying to deny FOIs around suing employees, suing people who actually speak out.
Even at the region of Niagara—we had a regional councillor who brought an injunction to court to try and stop a conduct report coming out about him. It was $47,000, and at the end of the day, he’s not on the hook to pay that $47,000. The regional taxpayers are going to have to pay those fees for him even though he was the person who brought forward the injunction. It just doesn’t seem to me that those kinds of things are right. People work hard for their money, and we shouldn’t be wasting their tax dollars like that.