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Marin or otherwise: Time to start recording closed meetings

With two weeks to go before Ontario Ombudsman André Marin makes his fence-mending Dec. 11 visit, Greater Sudbury city councillors are debating whether to part ways with the brash municipal watchdog.
With two weeks to go before Ontario Ombudsman André Marin makes his fence-mending Dec. 11 visit, Greater Sudbury city councillors are debating whether to part ways with the brash municipal watchdog.

As councillors have repeatedly stated, they find Marin’s modus operandi objectionable, if not unprofessional, and, prompted by Ward 10 Coun. Frances Caldarelli, are openly considering finding someone else to do the job.

They do have options. Ontario’s 444 municipalities are required to have a private-meetings investigator, but it does not have to be the Ontario Ombudsman.

If choosing an ombudsman was a contest, Marin’s office, as the investigator for 191 municipalities, would win hands down. Coming in a close second is something with the snappy name of Local Authority Services. It is the investigator for 129 communities.

Where Marin is brash, flamboyant and in-your-face, LAS reports are staid, dry and to-the-point. Where Marin shamelessly promotes his office and himself, LAS flies below the radar.

Because ombudsmen have no real power to punish infractions (unless that infraction happens to be refusing to co-operate with an investigation, a threat Marin levelled against Greater Sudbury councillors), Marin argues his tactic of shaming rule-breakers in reports, on his website and on Twitter is his strongest weapon in ensuring compliance.

He does this with pithy language, puns and cartoons. He does it with flamboyance. It is hard to argue that his MO certainly draws attention to his office.

But does his argument — that shame and embarrassment are his best and only weapons — hold water?

That’s really a matter of perspective. Certainly, Marin is highly visible and his reports and social media conduct are designed to attract the attention of media and the public.

But to think media would ignore an LAS report because it lacks a punchy title and a cover page is naive. The devil is in the details, and there is nothing reporters love more than details.
If style is not an issue, what about cost?

Marin insists his services are provided free to municipalities, which is not really true since his office is taxpayer funded. LAS charges $156 per hour (plus a $300 yearly retainer), bringing its 17-hour-investigation average to about $2,600. Small potatoes really on Greater Sudbury’s half-billion dollar budget.

But one has to wonder what is council’s objection to Marin. Today, councillors are tired of the “drama,” as Caldarelli put it last week, associated with his office. This is the “opposition of style” argument.

At the time of the actual investigation though, councillors’ opposition was quite different. Because a city solicitor is not permitted to be present when investigators are questioning a councillor, nine councillors refused to co-operate, saying the procedure violated their rights. This is the “opposition to procedure” argument.

Is it one? Is it the other? Both?

Council has shown itself to be quite thin-skinned when it comes to criticism, whether that criticism comes from taxpayers, André Marin or its own auditor general. But while they rail about how the ombudsman conducts and reports on investigations, councillors are missing an obvious out: record all closed-door meetings.

If council is following the rules — and repeated probings by Marin have shown this to be the case — recording the meetings should not be an issue.

The benefit, of course, is that if a complaint is made, the evidence could be quickly and easily (and relatively cheaply) reviewed by whichever investigator council deems fit. And councillors would not be called upon to testify.

Although the recordings would not be public documents, the fact that council had the moral fortitude to take the step would certainly help its optics with the public — which, let’s face it, have not been good of late.

Marin or otherwise, cameras or none, Dec. 11 promises to be, if you’ll pardon the expression, a dramatic meeting.