Niagara conservation authority has 'significant operational issues': auditor general

The issues include overstepping board members, less spending on watershed services and not properly tracking complaints around destroyed wetland.
Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk issued 24 recommendations in a new report about the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority. That includes 18 for the authority and six for the province. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

A new auditor general report says the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA) has "significant operational issues" that includes board members who overstep their authority and not properly tracking potential conservation violations.

In a report released Thursday, Bonnie Lysyk says the NPCA has to fix a number of  problems "to restore public trust and deliver its programs and services economically, efficiently and effectively."

The report's references how the authority handles conservation related complaints, which includes when debris is dumped in waterways or wetlands are destroyed.

One quarter of the potential violations from 2013 to 2017 are still open, she said.

Lysyk also said the authority didn't follow its own competitive procurement policies in more than half of its $3.8 million in purchases between 2013 and 2017. Since 2015, it's also paid $500,000 to 17 law firms.

The release also said administrative spending rose 49 per cent from 2012 to 2017, while spending on watershed services dropped 18 per cent.

She also found board members often "involved themselves in the day-to-day operations." This is a problem, she said, because most are elected officials acting on behalf of their own municipalities.

Less spent on watershed services

The province needs to do more to define the roles of conservation authority board members, she said.

At the NPCA, board member involvement "was not always perceived as positive by employees of the NPCA and the public," the auditor general's office said in a media release.

Lysyk's report included 18 recommendations for the NPCA and six for the province. The findings, her summary said, are guidance for all conservation authorities.

Mark Brickell, NPCA CAO, said he agrees with the findings.

NPCA already working on improvements

"NPCA, on its own, had already identified many of the same shortcomings, and has taken decisive steps to address such deficiencies through its ongoing commitment to continuous improvement," he said in the statement.

"We look forward to working with our ministry, Conservation Ontario and municipal partners in order to achieve the objectives outlined in the report, while also recognizing the importance of maintaining flexibility, and tailoring our programs and services to reflect local needs and priorities," said NPCA chair Sandy Annunziata.

The report comes after increasing political and public scrutiny on the authority.

The NPCA has seen significant staff turnover as part of four organizational restructurings from 2012 to 2017.

In the past three years, more than half of NPCA staff have resigned or been laid off, former Welland MPP Cindy Forster said last fall.

Thundering Waters

The NPCA also drew criticism when two board members-turned-senior staffers lobbied the province in 2015 to launch a pilot project on biodiversity offsetting using lands adjacent to Thundering Waters Golf Club. Those lands were part of a $1.4-billion development proposed by Chinese investors to create 10,000 housing units on the southern edge of Niagara Falls.

Lysyk mentioned that in her report too. The NPCA, she said, hadn't studied the site's ecosystem "to determine if it contained unique features that cannot be replaced."

The attention led to a Queen's Park public accounts committee to request the audit.

The watershed includes three municipalities — the Niagara Region, Haldimand County and City of Hamilton. In Hamilton, the Niagara watershed includes a large area of Upper Stoney Creek and Glanbrook.

Hamilton called for an audit, as did several Niagara municipalities. Hamilton unsuccessfully asked the province to let it out of the NPCA. It's also fighting a levy increase in court. 

About the Author

Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She has a particular interest in politics and social justice stories, and tweets live from Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca