The Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, stuck between a rock and a hard place, reluctantly decided to finally give what the public and area municipalities had been demanding: an independent audit of its operations.
But whether that audit, or a review of its practices dating back to 2011, will actually happen is another question entirely.
For months, the authority and its chair had refused to budge on authorizing an audit, despite the many questions of how it has handled its finances, decisions on wetlands, hiring of lobbyists, and conflicts of interest.
In fact, the authority lashed out at its critics, including issuing a defamation lawsuit — at taxpayer expense — against one St. Catharines resident for releasing information to the public about the agency.
Even with public and municipal pressure mounting against the authority, board members at their Jan. 18 meeting were still talking about deferring the idea of authorizing the audit, despite the anger emanating from the crowd in the gallery.
Hamilton councillors have also had questions about how the authority has been spending its tax apportionment in the Binbrook area. Even before the latest questionable financing issues, local politicians grilled authority officials during a budget presentation in 2011 about the lack of capital spending at the Binbrook Conservation Area. At the time, authority officials couldn’t provide an adequate answer.
Still, while the board may have approved a third-party audit, how that will proceed remains to be seen. A recalcitrant authority board, even with a new chair, could drag out the process almost indefinitely. The motion for an audit provided little structure on how that process will proceed, including no deadline, beyond asking for experts from Hamilton, Niagara and Haldimand for assistance in selecting a consultant. And there is also the cost of such a process. The motion allowed for $150,000 for consulting costs, but how and where it will be paid no one knows.
It remains troubling that a public agency refuses to be accountable to the taxpayers and municipalities that it is supposed to serve. It is also disconcerting that there seems to be very little oversight of the authority by government entities, especially the province, to make sure it is following the proper rules.
For far too long now the authority has stalled, argued, defended and lashed out at accusations in order to protect its own areas of interest. It has lost the trust of the public. It’s time taxpayers discover what is really going on at the authority.
The public deserves no less.