News

Region’s CAO joins lawsuit against NPCA activist

By Bill Sawchuk, The Standard

Carmen D'Angelo the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) of Niagara Region. Postmedia photo

Carmen D'Angelo the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) of Niagara Region. Postmedia photo

Niagara’s top bureaucrat has joined Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority in a defamation lawsuit against a local activist.

Carmen D’Angelo and the conservation authority are each seeking $100,000 from St. Catharines resident Ed Smith. The lawsuit was filed at the end of December.

D’Angelo left the conservation authority in the fall to take the CAO’s position at Niagara Region.

“It is my intent to defend myself against this action to the fullest extent,” Smith said. “I have said it before and I will say it now — this is governance run amok.

“That any government in Canada can sue a citizen for defamation, or even believes that it should, speaks of arrogance and a complete lack of understanding of the true principles of our democracy. The NPCA is using taxpayer funding to sue a citizen.”

Smith has distributed a report that accuses the conservation authority of questionable practices and conflicts of interest.

The 45-page document, which is titled A Call for Accountability at the NPCA, made its way to Niagara regional councillors and the media in the late summer and early fall.

D’Angelo’s assistant referred a call seeking comment on the lawsuit to the conservation authority.

Michael Reles, a communications specialist with NPCA, said the authority cannot comment on matters of ongoing litigation.

NPCA lawyer Robert Burns, of Broderick & Partners in Niagara Falls — who is also representing D’Angelo — sent Smith a letter of notice Nov. 14. with a list of demands.

The letter demands Smith deliver a full and unqualified written apology for distributing the report. A second demand asks Smith to provide NPCA a written undertaking confirming he will not distribute the document to anyone else or make similar statements about NPCA in the future. And, the letter demands Smith provide the identity of the authors of the report.

“I remain steadfast in my pursuit of transparency, accountability and good governance at the NPCA, and I will not be intimidated by lawsuits,” Smith said in a news release.

“Let the leadership of the NPCA (our elected regional councillors) be held accountable. (Chairman) Bruce Timms claims the NPCA is a model of transparency and accountability. The upcoming court case will certainly cast some light on that.”

Smith has been calling for an audit of the authority. So have most of Niagara’s municipalities including the big three, St. Catharines, Welland and Niagara Falls.

The three veteran provincial politicians — Cindy Forster and Wayne Gates of the NDP, and Liberal Jim Bradley — are on board. Niagara’s newest MPP, Sam Oosterhoff of the Progressive Conservatives, took his seat in the legislature at the end of November, and has added his voice to the call for an audit.

“I agree with the need for an appropriately thorough investigation, be it a forensic or value-for-money audit,” Oosterhoff said. “Taxpayers deserve transparency and accountability, and an audit would provide an opportunity to answer some of the questions raised about the financial and human resource management of the NPCA.”

One political body in Niagara that hasn’t called for an audit of the conservation authority in the wake of the report is regional council.

Members of regional council fill 11 of the 15 positions on the conservation authority’s board of directors. Timms represents St. Catharines at the Region; Fort Erie Coun. Sandy Annunziata is NPCA vice-chairman. David Barrick is both a Regional Councillor and a senior executive at the conservation authority.

Timms has spent months maintaining a forensic audit is a waste of money because the conservation authority already provides audited financial statements and operational aspects are covered in minutes of board meetings, which are publicly available.

However, last week, Timms said the NPCA board will likely debate whether to order a third-party audit of its practices at its next board meeting, Jan. 18.

While still maintaining there are better ways for the NPCA to spend its money, Timms said there could be value from a third-party audit as the agency begins to form its next strategic plan. NPCA is heading into its final year of a four-year strategic plan.

The controversial 45-page report on activities at the NPCA was issued after Smith addressed regional council and detailed his concerns about the conservation authority in May.

Regional council, which collects Niagara’s $7-million portion of the yearly bill from taxpayers for the NPCA, turned down a motion for an audit.

Following the meeting, Regional Chairman Alan Caslin wrote a letter of apology for Smith’s presentation on behalf of council to NPCA chairman Timms.

Timms has said Smith’s presentation was filled with misinformation and contained libelous and defamatory statements that impugned the integrity of the NPCA and its board.

In an earlier interview, Smith, 54, a retired major in the Canadian Air Force, said there isn’t any “malice” in the document, which calls for the NPCA to be more open and accountable.

He said he is a concerned citizen. He and an informal group of activists have been filing Freedom of Information requests and collecting information about the inner workings of the NPCA.

Conservation authorities are mandated to ensure the conservation, restoration and responsible management of Ontario's water, land and natural habitats through programs that balance human, environmental and economic needs.

bsawchuk@postmedia.com