Hamilton joins growing call for province to investigate Niagara conservation authority

By its own admission, the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA) suffered years of mismanagement and financial confusion. Now a growing chorus of voices — including Hamilton — want the province to take a closer look.

The conservation authority boosted the city's levy by nearly $1 million last year

The ecologically significant Wainfleet bog is among the properties in the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority watershed. (Supplied)

At least three Niagara-area city councils are demanding provincial reviews or forensic audits of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority's finances, and a Niagara MPP has written to the province as well.

Now Hamilton city council has joined the growing chorus of voices who want the province to take a close look at management of the authority.

'The public pressure seems to be mounting.' - Bruce Williamson, St. Catharines city councillor

Hamilton city council voted Wednesday whether to ask the province for a "thorough investigation." It's the second such vote in two years.

"Serious questions have been raised about the financial and human resource management of the NPCA," says the Wednesday motion from Coun. Brenda Johnson of Ward 11.

The Niagara authority watershed includes a large area of Hamilton in Upper Stoney Creek and Glanbrook.

By its own admission, the NPCA has suffered years of mismanagement and financial confusion, but officials insist it is getting its house in order. That hasn't been enough for its critics to back down.

Last week, St. Catharines city council asked the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) to do a forensic audit of the NPCA. Port Colborne and Wainfleet have passed similar motions.

"The public pressure seems to be mounting," said Bruce Williamson, St. Catharines city councillor.

It very quickly became apparently that we weren't alone.- Cindy Forster, MPP, over concern about the NPCA's handling of a development file

Cindy Forster, an NDP MPP from Welland, has weighed in as well. She wrote the MNR this year about the authority's handling of a development project on protected Niagara Falls wetlands near the Thundering Waters golf course. She's been working all year with environmentalists concerned about the NPCA.

Coun. Brenda Johnson will bring a motion forward at a Wednesday city council meeting asking the province to investigate the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

"It very quickly became apparently that we weren't alone," she said.

Last week, Forster tabled a bill saying conservation authority boards should be at least half comprised of people with natural resources experience.

The bill, she said, is to curb authorities who "aren't properly conserving wetlands and natural heritage the way they should be," she said in a media release.

Two other Niagara's two other MPPs, Liberal Jim Bradley and Wayne Gates of the NDP, support her efforts too, the St. Catharines Standard reported.

An increase of nearly $1 million

In Hamilton, the mistrust started last year when city council called on the province to temporarily take control the NPCA. This came after the authority asked for $945,000 more a year from local taxpayers. That would bring the levy from $513,473 a year to $1.2 million.

The board and staff at the NPCA have been following our provincial legislation and internal policies in every respect.- Bruce Timms, NPCA chair

Carmen D'Angelo, who was then NPCA's CAO, delivered news of the levy hike. D'Angelo, a former Hamilton ambulance manager, was a Hamilton representative on the NPCA board until 2014.

D'Angelo took a leave of absence from the board in 2013 — without telling the city — because the NPCA hired his private consulting company to advise on the authority's restructuring. Then the NPCA board hired him as CAO. He is now Niagara Region's CAO.

D'Angelo and chair Bruce Timms told city council last year that NPCA suffered years of "casual management" practices — but that it was over now.

D'Angelo admitted, for example, that Hamilton had paid the NPCA $2.95 million for capital spending since 2006, but the authority hadn't tracked how much of that money went to Hamilton projects. And about $1.2 million was shifted to the operating budget instead.

'I tried to keep a straight face'

Hamilton's levy agreement, D'Angelo said, also appeared to be poorly tracked. NPCA couldn't find any documentation showing its other municipalities – Haldimand and Niagara Region – were party to the agreement. That means it doesn't follow provincial regulation.

Following the proper guidelines, D'Angelo said, meant other municipalities would pay less, and Hamilton would face a nearly $1 million increase.

Councillors were incredulous.

"I listened with great interest and I tried to keep a straight face," Coun. Chad Collins said then.

It just shows that we were ahead of the curve.- Sam Merulla, Hamilton city councillor

The city is now pursing its only recourse — appealing the increase to the provincial Lands and Mines Commissioner. Haldimand and the Niagara Region are parties in the hearing. The city is waiting for a hearing date, and in the meantime, pays the old levy amount.

'Accountability, clarity and openness'

In Niagara, meanwhile, people are upset for different reasons. The Thundering Waters development is a big one.

The $1-billion development is led by China-based GR Investments Co. Ltd., the Standard reports. It's near Marineland and could include houses, restaurants and entertainment complexes.

The NPCA recommended "biodiversity offsetting," a conservation method where three times the amount of wetland lost would be recreated nearby. Local groups decried this.

There are other issues, Williamson said, particularly around hirings and dismissals. But they all point to the same need — "accountability, clarity and openness," he said.

At the heart of the criticism is Ed Smith, a retired major from Port Dalhousie who has spent months compiling a 45-page document called "A Call for Accountability at the NPCA."

Threats of lawsuits

The NPCA has served two letters of intent to sue, Smith said. Its request, he said, includes handing over a list of everyone who contributed to his document. 

Timms, who is also a Niagara regional councillor, hit back publicly at the veracity of Smith's report. In a Nov. 24 statement, he said some of Smith's documents are faked to "support … false accusations about the NPCA." (Smith denies this.)

"This is not the first time defamatory statements have been made in the public domain about the NPCA," Timms said.

The authority, Timms wrote, is "transforming itself in recent years to reflect the needs of the community."

That transformation, he said, includes the 2012 implementation of the NPCA's first strategic plan, 85 per cent of which the authority has delivered. He also cited the 2013 staff restructuring, and a "reprioritization of certain areas." This year, NPCA hired its first certified management accountant.

'We were ahead of the curve'

"The board and staff at the NPCA have been following our provincial legislation and internal policies in every respect," Timms wrote.

"The fact of the matter is, the defamatory statements being made about the NPCA are baseless, false, and half-truths accompanied by misleading and fabricated information. We will continue to do the good work we do as legislated by the province and continue to be a leader in transparency and accountability."

Still, the chorus grows. Last week, Wainfleet passed a motion asking the NPCA to conduct a forensic or value-for-money audit. Port Colborne and Niagara-on-the-Lake are asking the province to conduct an audit.

In Hamilton, Johnson's motion is an easy sell. 

The growing dissent, said Coun. Sam Merulla, "just shows that we were ahead of the curve."

samantha.craggs@cbc.ca | @SamCraggsCBC