Back-channel allegations placed before Norfolk council

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A Norfolk councillor has alleged that “orchestration” is behind some of the decisions made at Governor Simcoe Square.

Waterford Coun. Kim Huffman levelled the charge during a discussion of integrity commissioner John Mascarin’s annual report on April 28.

“I feel there is a lot of pre-consultation among council,” Huffman said via video link. “I feel that demeans our transparency and our obligations to our constituents.”

Huffman was referring to a section of Mascarin’s annual report where the integrity commissioner speaks of local issues he dealt with in 2019.

“Prior consultation by members amongst themselves via email or other electronic or digital means in advance of an open debate and discussion of matters derogates from the general open meeting rule and serves to undermine the goals of transparency and accountability of local government,” Mascarin said in the 11-page report.

Delhi Coun. Mike Columbus said Huffman made “some good points.” He suggested CAO Jason Burgess or clerk Andy Grozelle elaborate on Mascarin’s observation in a future report.

Grozelle begged off, saying it would be inappropriate for him to weigh in on issues involving the integrity commissioner. There was little interest around the council table in pursuing Columbus’s recommendation.

For her part, Mayor Kristal Chopp said there is already a mechanism for investigating complaints such as this, and that is the Ontario Ombudsman’s office in Toronto.

On March 12, the ombudsman’s office informed the county it is looking into allegations that Norfolk’s budget committee transacted public business behind closed doors on Jan. 28.

That was the day council deliberated for more than three hours in-camera before emerging to approve – in rapid succession – a number of resolutions related to the closure, re-purposing and transfer of county facilities and assets.

These include the closure of the Teeterville Pioneer Museum and the Teeterville Women’s Institute building; the return of the Norfolk Arts Centre in Simcoe to the Lynnwood Arts Centre board of directors; the pending closure of the Adult Community Building in Simcoe; the removal of the ice pad at the Simcoe Recreation Centre and the conversion of this space into a new Simcoe Seniors Centre; the closure of the museum component of the Eva Brook Donly Museum and Norfolk County Archives in Simcoe; a $210,000 reduction in Norfolk’s tourism and economic development budget; and the sale of 140 acres of county land.

A decision was also made to call proposals for the privatization of a second arena in Norfolk. Norfolk council cited financial pressure and low reserve accounts as the basis for these decisions.

The ombudsman’s office also recently dismissed two allegations that Norfolk council has conducted public business behind closed doors.

At last Tuesday’s meeting – during a brief discussion of Norfolk’s Recreation Facilities Advisory Board — Port Dover Coun. Amy Martin acknowledged that council held key discussions regarding county facilities in private.

Martin said certain decisions were made behind closed doors because they met provincial requirements for in-camera deliberations. These include discussions of identifiable individuals, county employees, legal issues, and real estate matters affecting county interests.

Mascarin’s report said his office fielded seven formal complaints in 2019 and 33 general inquiries. Total cost of his services came to $92,000.

By law, Ontario municipalities must retain the services of an independent integrity commissioner.

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