Toronto ombudsman says 'office of last resort' working to improve city

Toronto residents laid more than 1,800 complaints with the ombudsman's office last year - about everything from garbage bins to shelter spaces, hydro bills to city trees, building permits to business signage.

Ombudsman's new report says number of complaints dropped last year compared to 2014

Toronto's ombudsman handled 1802 complaints in 2015. It carried out seven investigations. It said 45 per cent had an element of 'poor communication.' (David Donnelly/CBC)

Toronto residents laid more than 1,800 complaints with the ombudsman's office last year — about everything from garbage bins to shelter spaces, hydro bills to city trees, building permits to business signage.

Seven of the complaints resulted in investigations.

Interim ombudsman Kwame Addo, in his first annual report Thursday entitled "The Office of Last Resort," said the total number of complaints received by the ombudsman's office last year — 1,802  —  was fewer than that of 2014, in which 2,230 complaints were filed. 

Addo said complaints about the "Ford Fest" barbecue and human resources practices at Toronto Community Housing (TCH) led to a spike in complaints in 2014, and if complaints about those two things are removed from the total, the number of complaints is actually increasing.

He said the office remains as important to the city as ever. 
One of seven investigations completed by the Toronto ombudsman in 2015 involved the Toronto Paramedic Services and its handling of psychological injuries suffered by its employees. (CBC)

"There is an avenue for people to come to complain about decisions they are not happy with," he said.

The report details what residents complained about, how the office works to improve the city and what the process is when things go wrong. 

"We are impartial. Our services are free. When we find the city has acted inappropriately or not followed the rules, we can find ways to assist the person who has complained," he said.

Addo took over from Fiona Crean, when she stepped down in November 2015 after her controversial stint as the city's first ombudsman.

Controversial Crean

Crean had made headlines in 2014 with a scathing report on hiring and firing practices under former CEO Gene Jones at TCH. She also drew the ire of former mayor Rob Ford and his allies earlier in her tenure with a report that found Ford's office improperly interfered with the city's appointments process.

Last year, the ombudsman investigated, among other things, city hall security, handling of operational stress injuries by the Toronto Paramedic Service, city hall red tape, the response of Toronto Hydro to emergencies, and the removal and protection of trees on city streets. 
One Toronto resident complained about paying for large garbage and recycling bins when she actually had medium-sized ones. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Patrick Dell (Patrick Dell/Canadian Press)

"We have a role to play in improving the delivery of services to the residents of Toronto. The report reaffirms that we are a respected, impartial, investigative body," he said.

The report says the recommendations from the ombudsman have led to changes in many areas, including resolving parking fines outside of court, providing public information about dog bite incidents, preventing evictions from Toronto Community Housing due to arrears, and adjusting water bills on compassionate grounds in certain cases.

Addo said the work done by his office makes a difference and helps individual Toronto residents with large and small problems.

For example, a woman who complained that she had medium garbage and recycling bins but was paying for large bins got a rebate. And an elderly couple who didn't get a hydro bill for six months and weren't told about meter changes got a credit on their bill due to poor customer service.

'Poor communication, poor service'

According to the report, many of the complaints included the following elements: "poor communication, poor service, unpredictable enforcement, wrong or unfair decisions, and unreasonable delay."

The report says the top 10 services complained about were: employment and social services; municipal licensing and standards; parks, forestry and recreation; revenue services; Toronto Community Housing; Toronto Paramedic Services; the Toronto Transit Commission; Toronto Water; and transportation services.

Most of the complaints were resolved informally, through phone calls or meetings. Addo said the wards that generated the most complaints were those in the downtown core. 
Kwame Addo, Toronto's interim ombudsman, says the downtown core generated the most complaints last year. (Rudy Limeback/Twitter)

"The work that we do benefits all residents," he said. He said the investigation into the Toronto Paramedic Service and its handling of operational stress injuries is a good example of the work done by ombudsman's office.

The ombudsman's office received 123 complaints about the Toronto Paramedic Service and interviewed 139 witnesses. It made 26 recommendations, including calling on the service to set up of a coordinated health and wellness plan for employees, education and training.

"At the end of the day, it will go a long way to improve the situation of first responders who are dealing with occupational stress injuries," he said.

"We're proud of the work we do. We have a dedicated team. It's a pleasure to do what we do," he said.

Addo's term ends this June.


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