Township should apologize, forgive property owner’s $11,700 debt

April 11, 2018

11 April 2018

Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé today called on the Township of St. Clair to apologize to a resident for surprising her with a bill for $11,700.63 in by-law enforcement expenses that it had no legal authority to charge.

Ombudsman Paul Dubé finds St. Clair officials had no legal authority to impose fee

(TORONTO – April 11, 2018) Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé today called on the Township of St. Clair to apologize to a resident for surprising her with a bill for $11,700.63 in by-law enforcement expenses that it had no legal authority to charge.

Mr. Dubé’s investigation, detailed in his new report By-Law Surprise, looked into the by-law enforcement and billing practices of the township and the County of Lambton after a complaint by property owner “Karen,” whose identity is kept confidential by the Ombudsman’s office.

The township added the charges to Karen’s tax bill to recoup the cost of 50 inspections of the property by the county’s by-law enforcement officer, dating back to early 2011, after a neighbour complained about the number of vehicles in Karen’s yard. The officer determined that the property was in violation of St. Clair’s “clearing of land” by-law, but Karen received no written notice until December 2012. She was not told until 2015 that she was expected to pay for the officer’s time and travel. In the meantime, the township twice closed her file because Karen’s ex-husband moved some of the vehicles and temporarily brought the property into compliance.

In fact, the clearing of land by-law does not allow the township to recoup enforcement expenses, the Ombudsman found. “The township could have cleared the land itself and billed her for this expense. But it could not simply let the situation linger unresolved, repeatedly inspect the property without Karen’s knowledge, and then stick her with the bill,” he writes in the report.

“I am not suggesting that the township deliberately acted contrary to law, or that it is not entitled to take steps to ensure that residents and property owners comply with prescribed property standards,” he says. “But in this case, the township’s actions are without legal foundation.”

The Ombudsman’s investigation, launched in July 2016 after efforts to resolve the case informally reached an impasse, also raised numerous concerns about shortcomings in the township and county’s processes for by-law enforcement, including the lack of a formal agreement between the two. In Karen’s case, investigators found the county had, at times, charged unauthorized rates and failed to ensure that charges for its services were clear, predictable, consistent, accurate and justified through detailed record-keeping.

The Ombudsman’s 16 recommendations include:

  • The township should forgive Karen’s debt and apologize to her.

  • If it intends to recover costs associated with this by-law, the township should clearly authorize the recovery of costs related to inspections, enforcement and administration, amend its clearing-of-land by-law accordingly, and include a right of appeal.

  • The township should designate a person to communicate with complainants and property owners alleged to be in non-compliance with by-laws, to help control enforcement costs.

  • The county and the township should enter into a formal agreement regarding enforcement services, which clearly identifies roles and responsibilities of each tier in by-law enforcement, and rates for specific enforcement actions.

  • The county and the township should establish a process to resolve billing disputes.

As is the Ombudsman’s normal practice, both the township and the county were given a chance to respond to his recommendations before the report was finalized. The County of Lambton accepted all of the recommendations directed at it. The Township of St. Clair accepted all but two: It agreed to make the necessary changes to improve its by-law enforcement and billing practices in future. However, it did not agree to apologize to Karen or expunge her debt, although its Chief Administrative Officer said it is prepared to consider reducing it by an amount to be determined by council.

Mr. Dubé said he continues to encourage the township to accept these recommendations, and his office will monitor and report on the efforts of both municipalities to implement his recommendations.

Since January 1, 2016, the Ontario Ombudsman has had the authority to review and investigate complaints about the administrative conduct of municipalities, including municipal councils, local boards and municipally-controlled corporations. Of the more than 6,800 complaints about municipalities received since then, almost all have been resolved informally. Only five have resulted in formal investigations to date. (Please note: These cases differ from the hundreds of investigations of closed municipal meetings the Ombudsman’s office has completed since 2008.)

The Office of the Ombudsman is an impartial, independent body that does not take the side of complainants or public sector bodies. The Ombudsman makes recommendations for constructive change that are not binding, but are almost always accepted.

For more information, contact:
Linda Williamson, Director of Communications

Beatrice Fantoni, Communications Officer