You’ve probably heard that there’s big trouble in the city’s public works department right now.

More than 30 employees are on paid leave, pending results of an investigation that are supposed to come out Monday. Talk is that some city staffers were selling gravel to private companies, using city vehicles for their own use, not working the hours they were paid for.

Shocking, to be sure. But Hamilton has been down this road before.

The public works department in this city was in a real mess a hundred years ago. Padded payrolls, graft, bribery, theft of materials.

And who did the city call in to sort out this fiasco? My uncle, of course.

OK, make that my great-great uncle, Judge Colin George Snider. (For what it’s worth, my middle name is George, my dad’s middle name is Snider.)

I never knew much about the judge. Then I went to a production at the Players’ Guild, in a fine old house on Queen South at Jackson. At intermission, I looked through the history sheet they pass out there. Lo and behold, the judge had lived right there. I mentioned this to Margaret Houghton. She’s been a member of the Guild forever, but her day job is archivist in the Local History department at the downtown library.

She dug up some information for me on Uncle Colin. He was born on a farm in Norfolk County in 1850, United Empire Loyalist stock. Went to U of T. Practiced law in Cayuga. Got made a judge, first in Halton, then Hamilton.

I was glad to have this background and put it away in the file marked Family at home.

This week, I heard from Margaret. She said that in light of the malfeasance outbreak at public works right now, I might want to see what Uncle Colin was working on 99 years ago.

Judge Snider’s Report on Civic Investigation, 1914

I went down and she handed me a 26-page booklet. The title: "Judge Snider’s Report on Civic Investigation, 1914."

Turns out Snider was official arbiter for the city. And they dumped a real mess in his lap in the fall of 1914. But he seemed to relish unravelling it.

The parallels to today are uncanny. Far as I know, nobody is suspected of selling city horse manure on the side this time, but the other crimes sure sound familiar.

Snider listened to it all right through the fall of ’14. Then, on Nov. 27 of that year, he released his report. He gets right to it on page one:

"It is quite certain that a considerable amount of petty theft by some city employees of city materials and city money was going on between January 1910 and January 1914. The cases of theft and dishonesty... show the city’s interests sadly needed looking after.

"A further conclusion which it is impossible to question is that this theft and dishonesty was due to a large extent to the gross neglect of duty by the heads of the department in which it occurred... the most simple-minded could help himself without fear of discovery."

To illustrate, Snider detailed the case of one Bernard Quidell, a time keeper in the works department. One of his jobs was to hand out pay packets. Sometimes there would be bonuses in those unsealed pay envelopes, yet no record was kept of these top-up payments.

Quidell often skimmed off those bonuses. Snider judges the thief’s inattentive bosses harshly: "This young man robbing the city treasury was receiving the sum of $10 a week. It seems almost criminal to put such a temptation in the way of a man of so small an income."

'neglect and confusion prevailed'

In the works department, the judge declared, "neglect and confusion prevailed. The business could not well have been more carelessly done than it was."

City building inspector John Anderson was on the take, the judge decided. He decided too that the city was getting cheated on its gravel purchases. And on its purchases from Crescent Oil. (They’re still around, by the way, on Cannon just west of Bay. And surely operating just as they should.)

There was the case of W.J. Carter, a foreman who worked under assistant city engineer C.E. Venattor. Carter built a cement walk at the side of Venattor’s house at 19 Argue Street. Carter used city materials and city labour for the job.

Said the judge: "This is an instance of a small abuse of the city’s time and of the city’s material – small dishonesty – which seems to have been indulged in without very much hesitation pretty generally."

The judge did his work. At City Hall, new checks and balances were put in place. A century later, it looks as though they may need a tune-up.

As for Colin George Snider, he died at the big house on Queen South on July 8, 1939. He was 89.

His obituary had this to say: "He possessed not only a wide legal knowledge, but had an unusual amount of common sense, and he had a kind heart which enabled him to temper mercy with justice."

Paul.Wilson@cbc.ca@PaulWilsonCBC

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