Brown wants City ombud for accountability but questions mount about his own behaviour
With mounting concern over disturbing behaviour under his watch, Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown now wants the City to hire an ombud to investigate complaints about City Hall, and according to a motion he will present Wednesday, he wants it done “as soon as possible”.
Under Ontario’s Municipal Act, municipalities are allowed to appoint an ombud as “another option to increase accountability and transparency”. If this is established, it’s unclear if all complaints to Ontario’s ombudsman will be redirected to the new municipal ombud.
The provincial ombudsman’s annual report shows that between April 1, 2019 and March 31, 2020, 44 complaints were launched against the City of Brampton, and all were resolved without an investigation.
Allegations of misconduct have once again dogged Brampton City Hall since Patrick Brown was elected in 2018.
During this fiscal year, The Pointer has been told by sources that ten people have filed complaints in recent months against the City about its hiring practices, bullying, and a range of other problems. The Pointer was unable to confirm this number with the ombudsman’s office.
Some accountability at City Hall already exists through the Integrity Commissioner. But this role deals with the conduct of elected officials, while an ombud can also look at issues across the municipal operation. Both only launch investigations if complaints are received and they are found to be credible.
It’s also not clear why Brown, who claims to want increased accountability and transparency, wouldn’t suggest an auditor general over an ombud given their more independent and wide-ranging investigative powers. Auditor generals in a city are also able to probe any matter that involves public dollars.
An auditor general doesn’t base investigations on complaints but instead looks at matters they believe need addressing. The Municipal Act states they are “responsible for assisting the council in holding itself and its administrators accountable for the quality of stewardship over public funds and for achievement of value for money in municipal operations.”
The City implemented the use of auditor general Jim McCarter, Ontario’s former AG, on an interim basis to investigate the city’s finances in 2015, after widespread mismanagement under former mayor Susan Fennell, but hasn’t brought back an auditor since.
Another issue with the possible hiring of a municipal ombud is the current complaints filed with the provincial ombudsman. One complaint by a former City of Brampton employee, forwarded to The Pointer, alleges alarming, widespread misconduct at City Hall under Brown's watch. If the mayor succeeds in hiring an ombud for the City, it's unclear if existing complaints with the provincial ombud would be handed over to a local ombud.
Regional Councillor Martin Medeiros said he will ask staff to report back on the pros and cons of an ombud compared to an auditor general.
He also wants to know why the City would hire its own ombud when there is one already available at the provincial level. “We have a service that’s offered by the Province, and being independent would provide more of that transparent process, which would give more credibility to residents.”
There would also be a significant cost involved in hiring an ombud for City Hall, whereas the provincial ombudsman, who currently investigates complaints in Brampton, is covered by Queen’s Park.
Councillor Charmaine Williams agrees that a lot needs to be explored on the concept, but she welcomes the idea. “The creation of an independent ombudsman office is an excellent tool for residents to address grievances and concerns regarding their interactions with City staff. It is a level of accountability that I always welcome.”
Councillor Charmaine Williams would welcome more accountability measures inside City Hall.
One problem with these complaints-based accountability functions is they have in the past turned into political tools for mud-slinging. In each of the last two terms, previous integrity commissioners for the City often dealt with complaints from council members against each other or from residents close to an elected official. Instead of a process that ends up being used to settle scores and sling mud, an auditor general role would not allow this type of use.
It gives authority to auditors experienced in the workings of government who investigate when they see cause for concern, to ensure taxpayers are being protected.
Brown’s sudden desire for more accountability comes as questions mount about his own lack of transparency. He has been unwilling to explain questionable spending and decisions made during his time as head of council.
Included in this long list is a $44,000 legal services charge in council’s 2019 statement of expenses. Under by-law 142-2019, all members of council had “access to a 24/7 legal advice telephone hotline, legal opinions and general legal risk management advice,” the City said in an email, a service provided by Justice Risk Solutions.
Brown has been repeatedly asked by The Pointer about his $44,000 charge to taxpayers for legal fees. No other council member had such an expense. After being confronted during a press conference last week about the issue, the mayor said he “doesn’t believe it’s a mayor’s office expense”. The charge is listed under his name and the expense report indicates it was Brown who billed the amount to taxpayers.
In an email, after six months of refusing to answer questions, he claimed the charge for the service was a fixed monthly cost, and it was staff’s decision to allocate the total charge for all council members to Brown’s office at the time, instead of listing charges for each individual council member next to their name.
The explanation, after refusing to address the issue following the release of the expense report last year, makes little sense.
Council expense reports in the past and in other municipalities provide detailed, line-item accounts of what each elected official spent.
Questions to clarify Brown’s claims were not answered.
In December, a resident forwarded a sweeping complaint filed with the provincial ombudsman, alleging widespread problems inside City Hall.
The sender is identified as a former City of Brampton employee.
The detailed complaint, with the names of current employees and specific allegations about their alleged conduct, includes concerns around Brown’s behaviour.
Brown had not responded to questions about the legal fees in his expense report prior to being confronted last week during a video press conference.
City staff say the decision to offer the legal service by Justice Risk Solutions was made in 2019, after the current council was sworn in. “No similar service was provided to members of Council prior to the engagement of JRS,” the City confirmed.
It’s unclear why the service was suddenly contracted, who asked for this service and how the hiring of Justice Risk Solutions was handled. It’s also unclear why $44,000 was billed in 2019 and who approved all these costs.
The Pointer was forwarded a complaint from a former City of Brampton employee filed with the Ontario ombudsman. It alleges a link between the monthly legal fees and Brown’s personal court battle over a book he wrote prior to becoming mayor.
The same year the legal service was initiated by the City, Vic Fedeli, now Ontario’s Minister of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade, sued Brown for $8 million, claiming his tell-all memoir was defamatory. The dispute was resolved in March and Brown issued an apology.
In a response to The Pointer, Brown denied allegations that have been made to the Ontario ombudsman that legal fees charged to Brampton taxpayers were for the Fedeli lawsuit.
Brown has also been unable to explain how the Chief Administrative Officer, David Barrick was hired as the City’s top bureaucrat in 2019. Just prior to his hiring, Barrick was part of a group, now working for the City of Brampton, being investigated by the ombudsman for their roles in a hiring scandal at Niagara Region.
David Barrick, left, and Jason Tamming were both directly involved in a fraudulent Niagara Region hiring process.
The provincial investigation report, titled Inside Job, found Barrick, who was a manager with the region’s conservation authority at the time, conspired to get his boss at the agency, Carmen D’Angelo, the Regional CAO job.
Jason Tamming, Brampton’s director of strategic communications, and Robert D’Amboise, the assistant director of corporate projects and liaison in Barrick's CAO office, were also investigated for their roles in the Inside Job scheme, which found they had engaged in fraudulent behaviour. Tamming had provided Barrick’s boss with the answers to questions he would be asked during the CAO-job interview.
Brown led the hiring process to make Barrick the head of City Hall, despite having no experience and having a checkered past that was well documented in media reports. The mayor has been unable to explain how someone with a tainted past and no experience in municipal administration, beat out highly experienced candidates vying for a job that pays in the range of $250,000 to $300,000. Barrick now oversees thousands of staff in Canada’s ninth largest city.
Under his new position, Barrick has stayed quiet on how a contract to develop the outline of a municipal development corporation for the city was given to someone Brown has known for years. Brett Bell, the director of MenesCo, was hired by the city last year, and has known Brown for two decades through their “mutual involvement in party politics.”
The Pointer could not find any effort by Barrick, whose office controls the project, to disclose the relationship between Brown and the consultant hired for the Municipal Development Corporation work.
Bell didn’t even have a consulting business when he was contacted by the City for the job. The City has not explained who contacted him, why someone without a business and with little experience in the area of municipal development corporations, was given the job and why the previous consultant with five decades of experience was dropped.
Bell told council in a report that Brown should be put on the board of the proposed corporation. If he is named chair, he would receive the $25,000 salary Bell recommended for the role.
Gary Collins, Brown’s director of communications, told The Pointer the mayor was not involved in the hiring process that resulted in his long-time PC political associate getting the consulting job.
This has been a repeated issue for positions and contracts given out during Brown’s tenure. Brampton’s integrity commissioner, Muneeza Sheikh, was hired despite having no experience in municipal law and never holding an integrity commissioner job. These roles have traditionally been filled by lawyers with years of experience as integrity commissioners and practice experience in legal areas involving municipal government activities.
Sheikh would frequently appear on political panels in the media and expressed support for Brown when he was forced to step down as the leader of the Ontario PCs in 2018. It was also revealed her husband’s company was paid to do work for the party while Brown was leader.
Another expense Brown has not been transparent about surrounds his social media use. His expense report outlines that $15,000 went towards a digital media, video and photography coordinator in 2019 and a total of $22,500 was charged by vendor Solarit Solutions Inc. for “social media promotion and monitoring charges” in 2020. Some $18,000 of this was broken up into five transactions and transferred to the strategic communications department between March and August of 2020. Expenses incurred by the mayor are not to be covered by any bureaucratic function of City Hall. A wall between the political offices and their functions and the bureaucracy is in place to ensure no overlap between the two distinct functions within any municipal government.
Brown told The Pointer through email the cost pertained to COVID-19 social media posts, aimed at informing residents about the pandemic and emergency orders. He pointed to the City’s emergency plan by-law, which states a head of council can declare an emergency exists.
If the money did pay for COVID-19 messaging, as Brown claims, it’s unclear why the costs weren’t charged directly to the strategic communications department, led by Tamming. This type of loose behaviour with the public’s money continues to raise concerns.
It’s another example on a growing list of questionable behaviour creating a dire need for better transparency inside City Hall.
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