Opinion

LaFLECHE: Civility dying at Niagara Region

By Grant LaFleche, The Standard

(Postmedia files)

(Postmedia files)

In some distant future historians writing about Niagara in the first decades of this century may look upon us with an unkind bewilderment.

Specifically, they may look at Niagara’s regional government and wonder how a municipal council devolved into a carnival of ineptitude and petty entitlement.

People who follow regional politics will know the latest dust-up is about hiring a so-called “fairness commissioner,” an affair that has apparently banished civil discourse.

Here’s the Reader’s Digest version of what has transpired: The Region awarded two contracts — one for a landfill and the other for regional insurance — and some vendors who lost in the bidding process complained.

Some councillors then raised concerns over the process, and council decided to hire a “fairness commissioner” to look at the process.

I do not begrudge council for wanting to hire a commissioner. It might even yield improvements to the system. The problem isn’t the idea. The bonfire of the burning stupid it sparked is the issue.

The landfill deal is done and over with, meaning a commissioner would just audit the process.

It’s in the case of the insurance where things fell off the rails.

The Region has sent a letter of award to its previous insurance provider, but has now put the deal on hold pending a review by the yet to be hired commissioner. The rub is that the Region’s current insurance expires on Nov. 1.

The initial selection of the commissioner will be handled by Niagara Falls Coun. Bob Gale, Regional Chairman Alan Caslin and Port Colborne Coun. David Barrick. Regional staff has no input, but the three amigos’ choice will require approval of the entire council.

That commissioner will review the bidding processes and contracts and release a report to be debated before any decisions are made.

(If councillors are really interested in being “fair,” the commissioner will have to look into all communications and relationships between the vendors and councillors, who are not supposed to lobby on behalf of vendors. A review that fails to do this will be about as useful as a warm bucket of fish entrails.)

Unless council has a machine to slow down time, there is no way this gets done by Nov. 1.

Some councillors, however, appear to be in a rush.

Gale and gang wanted a small forest worth of paperwork on the contracts in question. The Region’s acting CAO, Mo Lewis, is getting that material together, but in a couple of bellicose e-mails obtained by The Standard, Gale said it isn’t happening fast enough. He wants all the documents ready for a special session of council Thursday.

“I demand that these are sent to all council — in confidence or not I do not care — by noon tomorrow or I demand the chair of the Region take action against you and any staff that do not comply with this demand — or any other suitable way at my disposal to have these facts given to us,” Gale wrote to Lewis on Wednesday, using the word “demand” eight times in a six-paragraph message.

“Please do not qualify your response with other legal issues etc. as we are sick of this and feel the threat of legal action is a myth but only serves to delay our demand.”

In his reply, Lewis said the documents to be digitized and sent to councillors are a foot thick. He told Gale that staff is uploading the entire kit and kaboodle and it should land in councillors’ inboxes by Friday.

Gale then accused Lewis of being deliberately obstructive.

“This is obviously a delay to thwart council having the information for Thursday as we have been demanding this for weeks,” he wrote.

Gale did not immediately return a request for an interview Wednesday.

I understand the frustration of not getting information precisely when you want it. It happens to journalists all the time. But anyone with experience knows sometimes processing documents takes some time. And, given that this involves allegations of mishandling contracts that have already been awarded, there must be legal issues that have to be considered.

Prudence should rule over hastiness in this case.

There is no feasible way to get through this process before Nov. 1 and council hasn’t hired a commissioner yet. So whether councillors have those documents for Thursday or the next meeting is, at this point, not critical.

Moreover, Gale’s demanding demands are another example of the toxic political atmosphere this council has created, making the job of finding a new, permanent CAO more difficult.

Would any talented person take that job knowing they are going to be met with such hostility when things don’t unfold exactly as some councillors want?

Council was elected to handle the public’s business with civility and professionalism. It’s high time it started living up to that mandate.

glafleche@postmedia.com

Twitter: @grantrants

 



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