If you will permit me the use of a sports analogy here, dear reader, it strikes me that the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority is rather like the 1990s Buffalo Bills.
Ok, that might not be entirely clear to those who don’t watch professional concussion ball.
I am referring to the period when the Bills were a top NFL team that, despite its prowess, always found a way to lose when it really mattered.
The most famous of these chokes happened during the 1991 Superbowl when kicker Scott Norwood missed a field goal and cost the team the game. “No good…wide right,” is how ABC sportscaster Al Michaels called it.
When it comes to restoring lost public confidence, the same could be said of the NPCA. It’s made the attempt to score, but ended up missing the target.
Followers of the months-long NPCA drama know I am referring the merry-go-round of the damned that has been the effort to get the agency to audit its operations.
The NPCA had a golden opportunity to get an audit done for free, which would have gone a long way to restoring public faith in the beleaguered agency.
But, perhaps due to a crippling fear of efficiency and success, it chose another direction.
Calls for an audit have been swirling around since a local activist Ed Smith called for one following the NPCA’s handling of a proposed Chinese development on some Niagara Falls wetlands. There have been protests, weird efforts to advocate wetlands offsetting and general public and political consternation about the agency.
Eight Niagara municipalities – Pelham, Niagara-on-the-lake, Port Colborne, Thorld, St. Catharines, Welland, Niagara Falls and Wainfleet – have passed motions asking for an audit, as have all four Niagara MPPs and the City of Hamilton.
The NPCA opted for a minor leadership change, with Fort Erie regional councillor Sandy Annunziata replacing St. Catharines regional councillor Bruce Timms as the chairman, but that hasn’t blunted sharp calls for an audit.
(One of Annunziata’s first moves was to distance the NPCA from the scientifically dubious and extra-regulatory idea of wetlands offsetting, whereas Niagara’s regional chair Alan Caslin is inexplicably pushing for the wetlands protected designation to be revoked in order to get approval for that Chinese development.)
For a long time, the NPCA resisted calls for an audit, saying it was unnecessary, which only fanned the flames of public discontent. It was only in January that the NPCA relented and said it would hire a third party auditor to conduct a review.
Ontario’s auditor general Bonnie Lysyk, having received correspondence from several municipalities about the NPCA, offered to provide a team to do an audit. The NPCA said no thanks, maybe later.
The reason? NPCA board member Bill Hodgson had put forward a motion asking for a third party audit, and the board wants to “respect” that motion. Maybe the auditor general could get involved at some point in the future, said Annunziata.
The catch is that the auditor general’s team is rather busy and couldn’t wait for the NPCA to give them the thumbs up. So they moved on and will only be able to help the NPCA in the future is there is a window in their schedule.
An Auditor General’s audit would have cost the NPCA – which generates revenue via local property taxes – a whopping zero dollars. By comparison, the NPCA has set aside $150,000 of public money to hire an auditor.
As you might expect, the rejection of the Auditor General’s offer in favour of a more expensive process has already caused a political storm.
Wednesday’s NPCA board meeting became heated, particularly over who will choose the third party auditor and who that auditor will answer to. When it turned out that an auditor will report to a committee of NPCA staff, things got a bit ugly:
“We have a bit of a crisis of confidence in the community and public trust,” Hodgson said. “We don’t want to repeat all of this again. If we are going to rebuild public trust, we are going to have to start to answer questions openly and accept an independent assessment of what some of the issues are. I am quite concerned that we have weaseled-down the language.”
That drew a rebuke.
“I am going to call the pejorative language out of order, Mr. Hodgson,” said board chair Sandy Annunziata, a regional councillor from Fort Erie, of the use of the word “weaseled.”
“There are people responsible for this document that aren’t in this room to defend themselves,” he said.
Hodgson immediately withdrew the reference.
“I am just trying to say it has been reduced somewhat or watered down,” Hodgson said. “I didn’t mean to offend anybody.”
“None of us have been involved in this process, except [Acting CAO Peter). Graham,” Annunziata said. “If you would like to address those comments to Mr. Graham, maybe he can answer some of your concerns.”
Hodgson asked Graham to clarify to whom the independent third-party consultant would report.
“There is a steering committee that has been set up with myself and the rest of the senior management team,” Graham said.
Hodgson countered, “Does that not just scream for potential conflicts of interest?”
At that point, protesters in the gallery began catcalling and yelling at the board members.
Graham defended the integrity of his office and the process, but it’s hard to avoid the appearance of problem with NPCA staff hiring an auditor to review the operations of NPCA staff to whom that auditor will report.
In fact, given the political and public tensions surrounding the NPCA now, whoever they ultimately hire to do an audit is going to result in more flak thrown at the agency. The Auditor General’s team would have nicely avoided that land mine.
It would have been the simplest of matters to ask Hodgson to reconsider his motion for a third party audit and accept the Auditor’s General’s offer. The idea that would take too long to determine the scope of an audit to meet the Auditor General’s timeline is simply not credible. If the NPCA wanted to move quickly to bring the Auditor General’s team in, it could have.
Whatever that audit would have found – good, bad or ugly – would finally allow the NPCA to move on and restore some measure of public confidence.
The public may get its questions answered eventually, but the NPCA is insisting on a more time consuming and costly process to get there.
No good, NPCA. Wide right.