News

Hodgson quits NPCA board

By Bill Sawchuk, St. Catharines Standard

Lincoln Regional Coun. Bill Hodgson arrives at Wednesday's NPCA board meeting carrying his resignation letter. —  Bob Tymczyszyn/St. Catharines Standard

Lincoln Regional Coun. Bill Hodgson arrives at Wednesday's NPCA board meeting carrying his resignation letter. — Bob Tymczyszyn/St. Catharines Standard

Lincoln regional Coun. Bill Hodgson has resigned from the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority board.

Hodgson arrived at Ball’s Falls Wednesday morning dressed in jeans and a golf shirt and handed in his resignation before the board meeting began.

He then left immediately.

“I’m not going to make a real comment other than it was an issue of bullying and harassment,” Hodgson said on his way out. “My family and my health come first, so I have to resign. I have no choice.”

A reporter tried to approach NPCA board chairman Sandy Annunziata, a Fort Erie regional councillor, about Hodgson’s resignation during a break in the meeting but was told by a staff member to stay behind a barrier that separates board members and the public gallery.

Michael Reles, NPCA’s communications specialist, was asked to see if Annunziata would take some questions about Hodgson’s resignation. After a brief consultation with Annunziata, Reles returned.

“The resignation will have to be received by the upper-tier municipality — until it is received by Chair (Alan) Caslin and the Niagara Region, there isn’t anything to comment on,” Reles said.

Asked if Annunziata had anything to say about Hodgson’s accusation of bullying and harassment, Reles replied, “As an organization, no. We have nothing to say.”

Hodgson had been pushing the board to take steps to reassure the public of the agency’s integrity in the wake of a report circulated last fall critical of the way NPCA operates and accusing the agency of being rife with conflicts of interest.

A majority of Niagara’s municipal councils, Hamilton council and all four local MPPs, called for an audit of the agency, which will be undertaken by the provincial auditor general.

“We have a bit of a crisis of confidence in the community and public trust,” Hodgson said at a meeting in March. “If we are going to rebuild public trust, we are going to have to start to answer questions openly and accept an independent assessment of what some of the issues are.”

Hodgson was censured by the board in late April after Annunziata had said he received information about Hodgson.

Annunziata said he conducted an investigation and believed there was an “alleged impropriety” involving the bidding process for a firm to conduct an audit before the agency cancelled the process and called in the auditor general.

Annunziata engaged a legal firm, Gowling WLG LLP, to review his findings before putting Hodgson’s censure to a vote. The Gowling report has not been made public.

Hodgson’s seat sat empty during Wednesday’s meeting.

Stewart Beattie, a member of the board who represents Hamilton, was one of the last to arrive in the morning.

As he was leaving the meeting, he was asked for his thoughts on Hodgson’s resignation.

“I was wondering why he wasn’t here today,” Beattie said. “I hadn’t heard. I’m surprised. That’s unfortunate.

“He is a straight-up guy. I liked working with him.”

Timms, a St. Catharines regional councillor and board member, said Hodgson’s resignation is unfortunate.

“I’m disappointed that he felt the need to resign,” said Timms, the former NPCA board chair. “We all take lumps as elected representatives. You pick up and carry on.

“It’s regrettable he left the board. He did excellent work for us in the area of agriculture, and the concerns farmers and the authority engage in.”

West Lincoln Mayor Doug Joyner said the move caught him by surprise.

“I am very shocked and disappointed he has gone this route,” he said. “He mentioned he was being bullied, but I didn’t see any evidence of that in any meeting in-camera and in public.”

St. Catharines regional Coun. Brian Heit was at the meeting. He said it was clear the strain was affecting Hodgson’s health.

“I don’t blame him for stepping down,” Heit said. “He couldn’t continue to take the abuse he has been taking.

“Unfortunately, he seemed like the lone soldier there. He seemed like the only person willing to take on the conservation authority with the best interest of the taxpayers at heart.”

Welland NDP MPP Cindy Forster, a vocal critic of NPCA, said Hodgson’s resignation is a loss for the agency and the public.

“I understand his decision,” she said. “Why would he spend his days spinning his wheels when it has been clear he is not wanted? He can go out and use his time to be an effective, elected regional councillor for his constituency and greater Niagara.

“Bill has shown he has the integrity to ask the difficult questions.”

At the meeting, the board voted to refer changes to its code of conduct to a special committee for review and recommendations.

In a statement sent to The Standard earlier this week, Annunziata said the code review was prompted by circumstances that led to the censure of Hodgson.

The new code of conduct contains a section that demands board members demonstrate “unconflicted loyalty to the interests of the authority.”

Timms told the meeting he couldn’t abide by that.

“My unconflicted loyalty is to the Region that appointed me here and the constituents,” he said.

bsawchuk@postmedia.com 



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