Public Sector Digest
By Barbara Finlay, Acting Ombudsman of Ontario
Some 40 years after the first Ontario Ombudsman called for it – and 13 months after it was formally passed into law – municipalities in this province now come under the jurisdiction of the Ombudsman’s office. For the first time, Ontarians who have complaints related to municipal government have the same recourse to the independent, impartial services of their Ombudsman as they do when they have complaints about provincial government bodies.
Background on Bill 8
This change is a result of the Public Sector and MPP Accountability and Transparency Act, 2014 (“Bill 8” for short), which also extended the Ombudsman’s mandate to publicly funded school boards and universities. It has inspired welcome and constructive discussion in these organizations across the province. Several municipalities have already opted to bolster their own internal accountability mechanisms by appointing integrity commissioners. A few have even decided to set up a local ombudsman or share ombudsman services across several communities. Many others have seized the opportunity to review and clarify their processes for handling public complaints. These are all positive developments that will benefit Ontario citizens and municipal stakeholders alike.
Bill 8 came into effect at midnight on New Year’s Day. When we opened our doors on January 4 after the holiday, some 30 fresh complaints about municipalities were already waiting. Before the end of the first week, we had received more than 100. Complaints run the gamut from local services and programs (snow removal, municipal hydro, Ontario Works), to property and land use issues, to bylaw enforcement, to the conduct of municipal officials and allegations of conflicts of interest.
All of this was to be expected. There has always been a strong public demand for an independent office to handle complaints about local governments, whose services affect people close to home. Ombudsmen in six other jurisdictions in Canada already have some oversight of municipalities to meet this demand. Although our office had no authority to deal with such complaints until this year, over the past 10 years, we still received more than 10,000 of them – and in the year that passed between the passage of Bill 8 in December 2014 and its implementation, we received more than 2,200. Knowing this, we spent the past year preparing for this new responsibility and ensuring our staff were trained and ready to handle municipal complaints with the same efficiency and professionalism that allows us to process more than 20,000 cases at the provincial level each year. We have also begun growing our team and will add 50 new positions, including intake, investigations and legal staff.
Anyone curious about how we work need only look to our track record of resolving and investigating provincial issues, both individual and systemic. We resolve most complaints informally without need for an investigation, often through referring people to the help they need or making a few phone calls. We also flag issues proactively to nip problems in the bud. When we do launch an investigation, we give formal notice to the organization under investigation, and they get a chance to respond before any report and recommendations are made public. Although our recommendations aren’t binding, they have been overwhelmingly accepted and implemented by government. Our Annual Reports and systemic investigation reports are publicly available on our website and are full of good examples of the improvements this kind of work has achieved, such as improved security of provincial lotteries, and greater transparency and fairness in the Municipal Property Tax Assessment Corporation’s processes, and improved billing and customer service at Hydro One.
Additionally, we have developed productive relationships with many municipalities since 2008, when the Ombudsman became the default investigator for complaints about closed municipal meetings. Even though about half of the province’s 444 municipalities chose to appoint investigators other than our office, we have shared our reports, tips on best practices and guides for following the open meeting rules with everyone across the province, to promote transparency and consistency in enforcing the Municipal Act. This experience has helped prepare the way for Bill 8.
When we opened our doors on January 4th after the holiday, some 30 fresh complaints about municipalities were already waiting. Before the end of the first week, we had received more than 100.
Eight things to know about Bill 8
Still, naturally many questions remain as the reality of Bill 8 sets in. To help answer many of the common queries as best I can, let me close with what I’ll call “Eight Things to Know About Bill 8.” While this list is geared specifically to municipalities, most of it applies to universities and school boards as well, and all stakeholders are welcome to contact us for more information.
We are an office of last resort
Our role is not to replace or duplicate the work of local officials, complaint mechanisms or accountability officers – we are there to ensure that they are working properly and to step in only if those avenues have been exhausted or have failed.
We will refer complaints locally whenever possible
It is clearly in the public interest for citizens to have their complaints about local government resolved at the local level. Our experience with provincial bodies is that every complaint need not trigger an investigation. Rather, in many cases, people just need to be referred to the right place to have their issue addressed. We have also seen this with school board complaints, which Bill 8 brought under our jurisdiction as of September 1, 2015. We have received more than 250 complaints about school boards to date, but have not yet launched any formal investigations.
We encourage all municipalities to have clear complaint processes and their own accountability officers
In keeping with those first two points, I am urging all municipalities to establish processes for receiving and handling complaints as well as mechanisms including accountability officers to deal with them. Our role will be to ensure local mechanisms and officers are working as they should, and if necessary, to step in where they fail or cannot go.
We make recommendations; we don’t give orders or overturn decisions
The traditional role of an Ombudsman is to recommend solutions – our recommendations are not binding, but because they are aimed at fixing problems constructively they are almost always accepted. When we do conduct a formal investigation, the municipality in question will be informed and will have a chance to respond to our recommendations before any report is made public.
We have answers if you have questions
Our website has a new section for anyone seeking information about how we will handle complaints about municipalities – you’ll find it right on our home page (www.ombudsman.on.ca). Check out our video on “What to expect when the Ombudsman calls.” If you work at a municipality or are just an interested citizen, you’ll learn the basics of how we triage and escalate complaints. We will develop more resources like this, such as webinars for stakeholders, best practices for municipal officials, and more. If you have a question we haven't answered, you can email us at email@example.com.
We’re coming to a municipality near you
Over the past few months, my staff and I have held roundtable meetings with municipal and school board stakeholders across the province (in partnership with Canada’s Public Policy Forum), where we heard concerns and answered basic questions about how we work. In the next few months, we will be at several major municipal conferences to share more information. We’re also participating in the Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario’s training workshops on Bill 8. We are also holding a conference for municipal and school board stakeholders in partnership with Canada’s Public Policy Forum in late February.
We’ll keep you posted
As an office that relies on public input, we keep Ontarians informed about our work in many ways – through our website, our published reports and on social media. Watch our Twitter and Facebook accounts and our monthly e-newsletter, The Watchdog, for updates on complaint statistics and summaries of resolved cases.
We share a common objective with all those we oversee: Improving service to the public
We will work with municipal officials to attempt to find constructive solutions to problems and to bolster local accountability mechanisms so that citizens can have greater confidence in their local government. We look forward to being able to help more Ontarians in 2016 than ever before.