After months of investigation the Ombudsman’s Office delivered their report to Niagara Falls City Council this week concerning our complaint against City Council regarding closed door private meetings, as well as, a separate complaint regarding an in camera session in regards to a downtown University. The reports were framed a specific way in local press, one exonerating City Council (our complaint) and one finding their in camera session illegal (downtown University). None of the local journalists who covered the report wrote about our complaint back in October, and it appears they didn’t rely on it in reporting this time around either. Covering some of the basic misconceptions will help everyone as we move forward with what exactly our true aims are.
First, in talking about the report, the focus has been on an in camera complaint surrounding a Council meeting in regards to land leases to Marineland – this was a closed in camera Council session on May 29, 2012. All local media have centred on this, and this only, as the complaint registered regarding Marineland. The problem with this is, this in camera session was never part of our complaint. Our complaint, filed last October, can be read here along with the press release that went out. Our issue was with the “closed door” or “operational” or “special meetings” that took place without any public notice and which were only referred to in emails obtained through Freedom of Information. The May 29, 2012 meeting was never part of our complaint because we already knew it fell under exceptions to the Municipal Act. When we asked for clarification from the Ombuds office on this point they relayed and confirmed this was not part of our complaint, but that they investigated that in camera session anyways as a form of due diligence on the issue. The effect this has had is that the City Council has used this as an example of vindication, for a complaint that was never publicly made. This has also drawn away from the actual substance of our complaint – which revolves not around in camera Council session, but closed door meetings outside of Council.
What is the substance of our actual complaint? We knew through FOI emails that the City of Niagara Falls had carried out at least three closed door meetings with Marineland. We didn’t know exact dates, and we didn’t know who exactly was there. We asked for this information from the City, repeatedly, from 2012 onwards and every single time they refused to provide it. Without that information we could not know if a) a quorum of Council was present b) if they moved Council business forward during these closed private sessions. This is the reason we filed a complaint with the Ombudsman. From the Ombudsman report we now know that there were at least four “operational meetings” took place:
1. July 29, 2011: Mayor Diodati, Councillor Thomson, a representative from the Niagara Regional Police, and the owner of Marineland were present;
2. October, 6, 2011: Mayor Diodati, Councillors Thomson and Kerrio, the Clerk and four other staff members, representatives from Niagara Regional Police, the owner of Marineland, and the head of security at Marineland were present.
3. March 28, 2012: Mayor Diodati, Councillor Thomson, the Clerk and the Chief Administrative Officer were present.
4. June 18, 2013: Mayor Diodati, Councillor Thomson, staff members, representatives from Niagara Regional Police, the owner of Marineland, and MarinelandÔÇÖs solicitor were present.
Those original meetings predate the land leases by almost a year, and leasing land was discussed at these meetings, however, the Ombudsman still ruled that these meetings did not “move Council business forward.” This is a point we disagree with the Ombudsman on, however, in combination with emails obtained through FOI we now have a better picture of when those meetings took place and who attended. It is important to note that┬áall of this could have been avoided if the City of Niagara Falls would have just provided us with this information years ago when asked. Hopefully after having been through this process now we hope this will alter their behaviour in the future.
On that point, we have repeated our ask to the City of Niagara Falls and to the Niagara Regional Police to no longer hold any “operational meetings” behind closed doors with Marineland Canada. Discussions over land leases and conversations on policing of demonstrations need to happen with everyone involved, or in front of Council. For months now we have been asking for a stakeholders meeting to deal with public safety concerns surrounding the WeGo bus stop land lease and the situation it creates with hundreds of demonstrators having to cross Portage Rd. on a bend. These sight line and safety concerns have been echoed by the Niagara Regional Police, and in the past if they are not present to usher people across the roadway the situation becomes very dangerous for motorists and pedestrians. So far, no luck. Surely the safety concerns of hundreds of people outweigh leasing of small parcels of public land to a private business.
Until we see the level of transparency and accountability we feel is necessary from City Council we will continue with FOI efforts and Ombudsman complaints when relevant. This includes a continued and renewed ask to end closed door “operational meetings” outside of Council, enforcement of By Laws against Marineland, as well as a call to end and rollback land leases or at least update them to include transitory rights that would allow demonstrators to safely walk along Portage Rd. without needing a police escort. We do not feel like these asks are extreme and we do feel that they reflect the best interests of the public, not just demonstrators.
For anyone who wants a longer history of our campaigns relationship with Niagara Falls City Hall you can find that here.