May 10, 2018

Water decision deserved public discussion

Erin town councillors could have shown some courtesy by at least pretending to have a public discussion about getting rid of the water department.
Instead, after a lengthy closed session on April 24 and a brief public slide show by a consultant, they voted 3-2 to negotiate a contract with the Ontario Clean Water Agency (OCWA) to take over water operations.
One of the most important decisions in the town’s history was taken without public notice, and without a public discussion of the strategy by councillors or staff.
With OCWA promising to save urban ratepayers $200,000 a year, it could be an excellent decision. It comes with risks, however, and with many ancient water pipes to replace and more wells needed, the savings could be a drop in the bucket. 
Normally, councillors and the public get a chance to consider major proposals well in advance. In this case, the matter was a single line on the agenda. The town had commissioned an independent cost-benefit analysis, comparing the existing operations to two outside bids.
Normally a consultant’s presentation is printed in the agenda, so people have at least two days to think and react. In this case there was nothing.
Normally there is a staff report analyzing the pros and cons – something that had been promised on this issue – but again there was nothing. The explanation from communications officer Jessica Spina is that a recommendation from CAO Nathan Hyde would “eliminate the objectivity” of the consultant’s report.
Water superintendent Joe Babin was not allowed to speak during or after the meeting. Maybe he has some advice for council that the public should hear.
A complex matter like outsourcing water requires discussion. When did that discussion take place? Council never saw the request for proposals that went out in February.
A section of the April 24 meeting was legitimately closed to the public for matters of labour relations, employee negotiations or litigation. Other possible exemptions for confidential information and outside negotiations were not claimed. The Municipal Act limits discussion to specified topics.
Spina said that in closed session, the consultant “provided an objective view regarding the water department’s operation”, with an “overview of the department’s financial records which included proprietary information”, and that questions were asked about the analysis “as it pertains to staffing and department finances”. 
Any new strategy might be construed as impacting labour relations. There will be grey areas, but it would be advisable (though perhaps not convenient) to deal with sensitive personnel and negotiation issues in closed session, while discussing others in public.
These would include the concept of outsourcing, water quality monitoring, response to emergencies, criteria for extra costs, dispute resolution, performance in other municipalities and the option to have OCWA manage future wastewater.
In 2016, closed meeting investigator John Maddox urged Erin to keep meetings open to the public whenever possible.
“If in doubt, you should probably err on the side of caution and stay open,” he said. Councillors must limit discussion to the announced reason for the closed session, and not “wander off-topic”.
Some councillors were clearly uncomfortable when they returned from the recent closed session, having been warned not to reveal details. Councillors Jeff Duncan and John Brennan voted against starting OCWA negotiations, with concern that the mayor and CAO would be authorized to sign the contract without council seeing it.
Coun. Matt Sammut, a vocal critic of water costs, voted Yes, but had concerns about “impacting a number of lives”. He had second thoughts about his vote, but could not change it. He said if negotiators see “holes” in the deal, it should still come back to council. Mayor Al Alls told councillors to forward concerns privately to the negotiating team.
The mayor and CAO may have got their way, but at what cost? Considering that they recently promised to improve communications with the public, the meeting was still a disaster.