LTE: Ombudsman needs to get with the times

Well surprise, surprise! The Township of Leeds and the Thousand Islands Council has once again been reported to the Ombudsman. Well actually two more times. This would make it at least the 4th time in less than 2 years (that you know about) and yet again one of the complaints was for the use of quorum email that the Ombudsman felt laid “the groundwork necessary to exercise the power or authority of council”.

For those ready to stop reading out of confusion or boredom please allow me explain better. While elected members of the Provincial and Federal government have no restrictions in using email to discuss, inform, share and offer opinions on matters they deal with, we are not, at least if it can be ascertained that we are in fact possibly making decisions or offering opinions that might sway other members of Council.

But here is the real problem. During any given month, our Committee of the Whole Council Meeting (COTW) has approximately 13 items on the agenda. The meeting is scheduled for 3 hours. That means 14 minutes per topic. Allow 2 minutes per report for staff to read aloud the basics of the report and that leaves 7 members of Council approximately 1.7 minutes to speak on each issue. In other words no time for debate after each member has had a chance to speak, no chance for staff to answer the questions we may have and no time for the public to comment – as is allowed under our procedural by-laws. Is that fair to you the public, to those that come before us with important persona issues? Should we refuse to visit your property individually or collectively as most of us now do?

Should we refuse to respond to your email when you send it to us as a group? The problems with this issue are insurmountable and expensive for us all and yet the Ombudsman refuses to amend his rules to meet the 21st century.

Those who agree with the Ombudsman will argue we can limit the number of items on the agenda, lengthen the meeting times, hold more meetings or, don’t allow the public to speak. While I agree they are all options (except the last idea) the reality is that if we shorten the agenda it will take forever to get anything done in our Township. Municipal politics moves almost as slow as the wheels of Justice.

As for lengthening the meetings or adding more meetings, we always have to be cognisant of the publics ability to attend meetings, staff resources, overtime issues, staff burn out and of course Council members ability to commit to more than we already do – which for all of us is a great deal already, especially for those that have other full time employment and sit on one or more sub committees of Council that meet at least once a month. In other words we attend at a minimum 3 township related meetings as well as numerous social, training and information gathering meetings each month.

And so in 2016 we are left with email. Yes your Council uses it regularly – well at least all of us but one member and in that member’s case quite frequently during discussion at the table she will comment that she was unaware of certain information and thus the meeting is bogged down as we all try and play catch up.

Now some might suggest just stop using the Township email account and use your own or use the phone or go out to the bar – just find another avenue. Again, while I would agree with everyone’s ideas, the reality is that then what you have is a bunch of hypocrites sitting on Council not willing to stand up for their convictions and communicating secretly. Is that who you want serving you? Please don’t answer that!

But it goes deeper than that. Even if we chose to use other methods of communication outside of Township email, we would if exposed still be accountable to an Ombudsman investigation as he and the courts have ruled that even private email, private telephone conversations and private meetings at social functions are subject to investigation by the Ombudsman if a quorum of Council was in attendance and discussions involved Council business.

And so here is your homework assignment. If using quorum township site email, private email, private telephone conversations or going to a party and chatting with fellow Councillors can be construed as potentially contravening the closed meeting rules of the Ombudsman does that mean if a Councillor posts on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat or heaven forbid even writes a letter to the editor where a quorum of the same Council are friends or follow that same Councillor and read and/or reply to that message, is there grounds for a possible complaint to the Ombudsman.

The answer sadly even in 2016, is yes – possibly, thus explaining in part why it is so difficult to get things done at the municipal level when you have some members of Council and special interest groups with personal agenda all refusing to recognize what the year is.

John Paul Jackson
Councillor Ward 2
Township Of Leeds And The Thousand Islands

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