Niagara’s politics are sick. The symptoms, like a wet cough that bespeaks a serious lung infection, are easy to see. If the proper cure is not administered, the illness will simply get worse, and the body will grow ever sicker and weaker.
This week, one of Niagara’s long-time public servants stepped down from his post on one of the region’s key governing bodies, the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority.
Lincoln regional councillor Bill Hodgson, a politician for whom scandal and controversy are total strangers, resigned from the NPCA claiming he was bullied by other members of the board.
The reaction of the NPCA so far has been silence, although its board chair, Fort Erie councillor Sandy Annunziata, was less restrained when the chain of events that led to Hodgson’s registration began.
This started with an accusation from Annunziata about Hodgson’s conduct – the details of which the public, its news media and most of its elected representatives, have not been permitted to see. The road began there and ended with more political controversy for a region that simply cannot avoid stepping on political rakes.
Hodgson’s resignation from the embattled NPCA board is not something to be cheered by the remaining members of the board, nor NPCA staff, nor other members of Niagara’s regional council, nor the citizens that elected Hodgson to represent them.
Shame and outrage should be the appropriate reactions from those involved and those impacted. This is not how local government is supposed to operate.
This latest round of Niagara political controversy began when the NPCA board announced it had censored Hodgson for allegedly interfering in the bidding process that would have seen the NPCA hire an auditor to review its operations – something the public had been demanding for months.
How, why and when did Hodgson allegedly interfere with the process? We don’t know because the NPCA leadership refuses to disclose the details of their allegation.
Annunziata has said he engaged a legal firm to investigate information he received, and that legal firm – Gowling WLG LLP – produced a report which was used as the basis to censure Hodgson.
Annunziata sent a letter to every municipal council in the areas within NPCA jurisdiction. That letter alleges Hodgson had acted improperly, but it did not contain the details of the allegation nor the Gowling report it references. Annunziata has so far declined to speak to the press about the specifics of this allegation.
In effect, Annunziata and the members of the NPCA who voted to censure Hodgson are telling the public to take their word for it.
“Just trust us,” has been the message.
To put it plainly, we do not have to take their word for it.
As the late, great Edward R. Murrow pointed out a long time ago, accusation is not proof and conviction depends on evidence and due process. It also requires transparency. If we, the citizen of Niagara, are to take the claims of the NPCA and Annunziata seriously, then they must present in public their allegations against Hodgson.
That does not appear to be the prevailing thought among Niagara’s politicians, however.
During an email exchange with NPCA critic Ed Smith, Niagara Falls regional councillor Bob Gale told anyone else who wants to weigh on the Hodgson issue to “shut up.”
More than that, Gale suggested that Hodgson should either tell the public what he is accused of doing or give the NPCA “permission” to release the Gowling report.
This is not how the most basic principles of justice work. The burden of proof always rests on the shoulders of those making an allegation. It is not up to Hodgson to present that information to the public, but rather it is up to the NPCA to present its allegations in an open forum. (This is why in our criminal justice system, the accused has a right to remain silent. The accused is not required to incriminate himself.)
It is difficult to understand why the NPCA would make its allegations public in so vague a manner and so resolutely insist the details are not for public consumption. It tried and convicted Hodgson in the shadows and then insists everyone simply accept their judgement as just and proper.
Other recent events might shed some light on the current political mindset in Niagara and explain, in part, these actions.
As reported in the St. Catharines Standard, the NPCA is considering a code of conduct that will, among other things, require absolute loyalty to the board from members, require board members never express a dissenting opinion about board decisions and, if they do, they can be expelled from the board.
This kind of code of conduct language is common in private corporations but rarely used in public bodies that can tax the public and are governed by elected officials whose first and only loyalty is to the people who elected them. (The public bodies that currently use this kind of language in codes of conduct in Ontario are, perhaps unsurprisingly, other conservation authorities.)
I again turn to Murrow: “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty.”
It is not uncommon for dissenting politicians to discuss their opposition in public after a vote at a council or board. Indeed, hearing voices of dissent are vital to a properly functioning democratic system. Gagging politicians and insisting they march in lock step with a publicly accountable board, regardless of opposition, is profoundly undemocratic.
(A few NPCA board members expressed their disagreement with the board’s decision to censure Hodgson. Under the proposed code of conduct, those board members would be gagged thereby providing a false impression of total board unity.)
Yet, closing ranks instead of improving democratic transparency seems to be of great concern to our local political leadership.
Consider the recent comments by regional chair Alan Caslin on the May 16 episode of the Tim Denis show on CKTB 610 A.M.
Denis and his other guests expressed dismay as the NPCA’s draft code of conduct’s insistence on absolute loyalty from board members that supersedes any other loyalty that member may have. Caslin’s reply is telling. He did not address the problems associated with the NPCA demanding loyalty from elected officials, but rather focused on the issue of leaks.
When it comes to codes of conduct and conduct of councillors, we struggle with trying to keep in-camera items private. Inevitably, they get leaked way too often and that has to stop. So those sorts of, that decorum has to be more more prevalent, not only prevalent but followed and respected because, quite frankly, the information that is dealt with in-camera is in-camera for a reason.
Denis said he was concerned with the emphasis on loyalty and the consequences of dissent. Caslin again changed the focus on the need for loyalty:
Being prescriptive where the loyalty lies is an absolute necessity and quite frankly may help in keeping that confidential information private.
There are already existing rules around the what can and what cannot be held in-camera by municipal councils in Ontario and as a general principle, governments should err on the side of openness. The issue we face in Niagara is whether our councils and public boards are overstepping those bounds, conduct public business behind closed doors and are trying to narrow the scope of public debate.
If we take democratic transparency seriously, loyalty to a board is vastly less important than, say, publicly accusing a politician of acting improperly and keeping the details of that allegation secret.
Leaks and loyalty are less important than the conduct and decisions of elected bodies.
Either transparency is a guiding principle of our local politics, or it is not. If it is not, then the illness that infects our body politic will simply spread and make our local democracy sicker.