HUNTSVILLE – Huntsville council has opted to dodge the Ontario Ombudsman.
Councillors voted at their meeting on Feb. 25 to appoint Local Authority Services to investigate any complaints about their closed session meeting content, should any complaints be lodged with the town. The decision will cost a minimum cost of $300 per year.
Denise Corry, clerk and executive director of corporate services for the town, told council that if someone lodges a complaint, it has the choice of allowing the ombudsman to investigate whether council went into a closed session meeting for the right reasons or hiring a third-party investigator.
“The upside of using an investigator other than the ombudsman is due to the fact that Local Authority Services, for example, is very well versed in municipal operation and they have lots of experience when it comes to the Municipal Act,” said Corry. “I do feel it is in our best interest that we have someone representing us who is familiar with the act and can make a non-biased decision.”
She noted that, while there is a cost associated with hiring Local Authority Services, there is also a cost associated with the ombudsman since that office is funded by Ontario taxpayers.
And she said the investigator would provide the municipality with regular educational updates to keep the municipality in step with closed session best practices. Local Authority Services will change an annual retainer of $300 in addition to an hourly investigation fee of $156.25, if an investigation is launched. An average investigation takes about 17 hours and costs about $2,656.25, according to the company.
The municipality has not had an investigation into a closed session, nor did it have an investigator, but changes to provincial legislation now require each municipality to either opt for the ombudsman or another investigator.
Mayor Claude Doughty raised the issue of a closed session investigator during the January council meeting. He reiterated his stance of avoiding the ombudsman when it comes to closed session investigations.
“The ombudsman, to put this as kindly as I can, has gone off on his own agenda in the sense of almost rewriting the Municipal Act when it comes to the protocols around closed sessions,” said Doughty. “Having seen some of the examples of the investigations done by the ombudsman, that person is not a specialist in this field.”
All fees and expenses related to closed session meeting investigations will come from the corporate consulting budget, according to a staff report.