Hamilton heads for showdown with Niagara over seats on conservation authority board

Hamilton is appointing four people to sit on the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA) board after learning that for decades, it's had half the members it deserved.

Hamilton should have 4 people to the NPCA board, but for years, was only allocated 2

Coun. Brenda Johnson from Ward 11 will be one of four appointees on the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority board. For years, Hamilton only had two, but should have had more. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Hamilton is heading for a showdown with Niagara Region over how many seats it holds on the board of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority.

Hamilton is now convinced it has four seats on the problem-plagued board (NPCA) board after learning that for decades, it was given half the members it deserved.

The city plans to go ahead and appoint four representatives to show up at the first meeting, even though Niagara Region has already filled the board with its appointees, leaving only two seats.

Sam Merulla, Ward 4 councillor, said Hamilton had a "democratic deficit" for years.

"I'm actually shocked that for over two decades, we've been underrepresented," he said. "How did it go unnoticed until now?"

Since at least the early 90s, two Hamilton reps have sat on the NPCA board. Right now, the board is comprised of 12 people from Niagara, two from Hamilton and one from Haldimand. The province says it should be five from Niagara, four from Hamilton and two from Haldimand.

How did it go unnoticed until now?- Sam Merulla, Hamilton councillor

Councillors seemed outraged and bewildered Wednesday as they voted to appoint the right number of members — even though Niagara has already gone ahead and appointed its usual dozen.

"Based on media reports, they appear to be dysfunctional," said Lloyd Ferguson, Ancaster city councillor, during a general issues committee meeting Wednesday. "They just went ahead and appointed a new board anyway."

By some accounts, this would be an understatement.

In a report this year, the auditor general said the NPCA had "significant operational issues," including board members interfering in day-to-day operations. It also outlined some issues with procurement, and offered 18 recommendations for the NPCA and six for the province. The NPCA says it's already implementing many of them.

Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk issued a report on the NPCA earlier this year, including a number of recommendations. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

In the Niagara Region in general, voters ousted so many regional councillors in the last election that two-thirds of the council is new. This happened in part because of media reports around the hiring of CAO Carmen D'Angelo, a matter that the Ontario Ombudsman is investigating now.

As for Hamilton, there's been friction since the NPCA hiked the city's levy in 2015. 

Hamilton taxpayers had to pay nearly $1 million a year more, D'Angelo told them. D'Angelo, once a Hamilton NPCA rep, had become the head of the NPCA.

Hamilton's lower levy, D'Angelo said, was based on an apparent agreement no one could verify or find anymore.

Hamilton appealed the levy increase to the Ontario mining and lands commissioner, which ruled with the NPCA. The city is now fighting it in court.

As part of the levy discussion, the NPCA talked about granting Hamilton another seat or two on the board, said James Kaspersetz, a Hamilton NPCA rep and interim chair. Then during the commission hearing, he said, "it kind of got us thinking."

The inaugural meeting will be interesting, he said. If a dozen Niagara reps show up, "there'll be five chairs for them."

Niagara Region spokesperson Jason Tamming says regional council will get legal advice on the matter Thursday.

In addition to two councillors, Hamilton will appoint two citizens, although not until early 2019. The deadline for applications is Friday. Coun. Brenda Johnson of Ward 11 (Glanbrook) and Coun. Brad Clark of Ward 9 (upper Stoney Creek), a one-time PC cabinet minister, will sit on the board.

There are 112,000 Hamilton residents living in the Niagara watershed, Johnson said. According to the Conservation Authorities Act, that gives Hamilton four members.

"It's interesting to try and figure out why it's never been investigated," said Kaspersetz, who lives in Stoney Creek. "It's always been a stronghold of Niagara and no one's really questioned it."

About the Author

Samantha Craggs

Reporter

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

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