News

NPCA changes direction on audit

By Allan Benner, The Standard

The Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority board voted to call in the Auditor General, after concerns were raised that a request for proposal process to hire a consultant had been corrupted.

NPCA chairman Sandy Annunziata called a special board meeting Friday to resolve concerns about “alleged improprieties” that undermined the integrity of efforts underway since early March to hire a private consultant to conduct a review of its operations.

“In reaching this conclusion, I asked a simple question: Are the facts as such that an average person in the community could reasonably conclude that the process has been influenced or corrupted in anyway. I believe they have. ... The collateral damage is there could be no confidence in the legitimacy of the RFP process, and that’s disappointing.”

Annunziata did not provide details about the allegations during the public meeting, but invited board members to meet in camera if they wanted to discuss it.

No one took him up on the offer.

Instead, board members voted unanimously to repeal a motion approved in February calling for the RFP, and to accept Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk’s offer to conduct a value for money audit of the NPCA.

Following the meeting Annunziata said he could not provide details about how the RFP process was corrupted. He did, however, allege that a board member he didn’t identify was responsible for undermining the process.

“What’s the most disappointing part of this is, we had a motion that we were working with and we respected it to the letter of the law. It’s unfortunate that a board member would jeopardize not only his own integrity, but the integrity of the board,” he said.

“I wasn’t going to allow that to happen. That’s why the recommendations that I made were to immediately halt that process, when there’s no longer legitimacy and confidence. And that’s the collateral damage, that the process, if it did continue, had no longer the legitimacy that it needed.”

Annunziata also would not provide further information about how he learned about the allegations, but said he trusts the individuals who brought it to his attention.

“It’s an issue I take very seriously,” he said.

Annunziata said he called the special board meeting within 72 hours of learning that the RFP process may have been corrupted, to update board members and give them the option to change direction.

Asked if there would be any disciplinary actions taken against a board member as a result of the allegations, Annunziata said: “Stay tuned.”

“I value and respect the board and I will respect any decision the board directs me to do. That has to play out as it plays out,” he said.

Several area provincial politicians as well as a growing number of municipalities have called on the NPCA to abandon the RFP process and accept the assistance of the Auditor General’s office.

Wainfleet Mayor April Jeffs said her township council approved a similar motion on Tuesday, joining other area municipalities including St. Catharines, Welland, Niagara Falls and Hamilton.

And several NPCA board members representing those municipalities were pleased with the organization’s change of direction — regardless of the circumstances that led to it.

Welland Mayor Frank Campion said he was not aware about any interference with the RFP, but he’s “not really concerned about it because it achieves our objective.”

“I’m not saying it’s a good thing, but I didn’t want to go in camera to find out because whatever it is, it’s done, and of course it gets us where we want to be going,” he said.

Welland MPP Cindy Forster said she too was pleased that the Auditor General is getting involved, adding it will “give the public some trust.”

“Their policy is that whatever they find. they report. They don’t hold back. It isn’t like when you pay a consultant, you hire a consultant and you get to see the report and you get to vet it before it goes out to the public,” she said.

St. Catharines resident Ed Smith, who faces $200,000 lawsuits from the NPCA and its former executive director — accused of distributing a scathing anonymous report about the organization — said he’s “hopeful” about the board’s decision.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that it’s a step in the right direction, but I also see potential for landmines along the way,” he said.

Annunziata said the board’s decision on Friday “had nothing to do with” the requests from local municipalities and provincial politicians.

“We made a decision as a board to pursue a process that was independent, arm’s length. That was the commitment that we made. Unfortunately, that has been compromised.”

Annunziata said prior to that the board had been committed to following the directions of a motion by board member Bill Hodgson, a regional councillor from Lincoln, including setting aside $150,000 to pay for an audit, once the RFP process had concluded.

“Unfortunately that has been compromised in a situation that was not supposed to have any hands of the board touch it … that’s the situation.”

As recently as April 13, the NPCA’s interim CAO Peter Graham wrote a letter to MPPs from throughout Niagara and Hamilton, essentially denying their request.

Annunziata said the calls for the audit were “about politics” rather than a need for transparency or rebuilding public confidence.

“At the end of the day the NPCA is a leader in openness and transparency, and I will challenge anybody – any other conservation authority to do what we do with live streaming, with updated financial reports. I would suggest that everyone look at the latest audit statements that came from our auditor, specifically in our management letter that there is no fraud or inconsistencies or anything like that,” he said.

“This is unprecedented in the sense that we are the only conservation authority in Ontario, we are the only agency and that includes municipalities, that has openly invited the auditor general into our offices.”

Annunziata said the NPCA will be bound by legislation regarding working with the auditor general, just as it’s bound by legislation regarding its conservation mandate.

“We don’t pick and choose which legislation to follow. It’s real simple and it’s something that we will continue to do. We don’t operate outside the legislation. We don’t engage in pilot projects. We follow the legislation – period,” he said.

Following the meeting Friday, Annunziata was on the phone with Lysyk’s office to start the process of getting the Auditor General involved.

He expects to update the board by mid-May.

ABenner@postmedia.com

Twitter: @abenner1

How they voted

For: Stewart Beattie, Hamilton; Frank Campion, Welland; Dominic DiFruscio, Thorold; Bill Hodgson, Lincoln; April Jeffs, Wainfleet; Vice-chair James Kaspersetz, Hamilton; John Maloney, Port Colborne; Tony Quirk, Grimsby; Rob Shirton, Haldimand; Bruce Tims, St. Catharines; Chair Sandy Annunziata, Fort Erie.

Absent: Brian Baty, Pelham; Patrick Darte, Niagara-on-the-Lake; Jim Diodati, Niagara Falls; Douglas Joyner, West Lincoln.  



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