THE NIAGARA PENINSULA CONSERVATION AUTHORITY (NPCA):
MISINFORMATION OR MANUFACTURED CONTROVERSY?
In early 2016, people had some questions for the publicly-funded Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority’s (NPCA) board of directors; inside a year, the NPCA, and former CAO Carmen D’Angelo, had jointly filed a $100,000 defamation suit against St Catharines resident and retired Canadian Air Force Major Ed Smith.
How did we get to a place where a government agency felt entitled to sue a citizen instead of providing answers to the questions asked? The simple answer is the culture of impunity at the Niagara Region and the conservation authority (NPCA), whose 15 member board of directors features 11 duly elected Niagara regional councillors.
2015 to early 2016: the NPCA and the Lobbyist
The public became aware the conservation authority had hired lobbyists, with public funds, to advocate for the removal of provincial restrictions on the development of Thundering Waters Forest, a privately-owned and ecologically sensitive area, located in Niagara Falls, provided the existing Provincially Significant Wetlands (PSWs) are replaced through the creation of wetlands elsewhere in a concept known as biodiversity offsetting.
When the public began to question the board of the NPCA regarding Biodiversity Offsetting, members denied having hired a lobbyist or having any specific sites in minds. As you can see by the below documents, we know that to be false.
To be clear: the board of directors of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA), two thirds of whom are elected members of the Niagara Regional Council (or one third of council), used public funds to hire lobbyists to enable a private company to develop provincially protected, ecologically sensitive, lands (and lied about it).
Thus began our questions, their lies (or misinformation and manufactured controversy), the dubious spending of taxpayer dollars, and the Charter Rights violations which most recently resulted in the press freedom fiasco at Niagara regional council. That is not to say there were not issues predating biodiversity offsetting, rather, it was the catalyst for 0the events with which this summary is concerned.
Summer to end 2016 – the NPCA and the call for accountability
By June 2016, the questions were many and the peoples call for a forensic audit of the NPCA was gaining momentum despite a motion to the Region of Niagara for an audit of the NPCA being defeated. The public turned to the Freedom of Information Act for answers but none were forthcoming; requests for documents were denied and the public was left with more questions. In late October, public frustration and mistrust culminated in what documents were available, at the time, for consideration, and the questions they raised, being compiled into a report, A Call for Accountability at the NPCA. FEWniagara/PDFs/A Call
This report quickly went public and, instead of simply answering the questions outlined in the report, the Board of the NPCA turned to attorneys and threats. Within 60 days of A Call for Accountability going public, the NPCA had a new Chairman of the Board of Directors (Councillor Annunziata replaced Councillor Timms) and the NPCA, and it’s CAO, had filed a defamation suit against Major Smith in civil court.
As Justice Ramsay wrote in his December 2017 decision of NPCA v. Smith:
To be clear: the board of directors of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, two thirds of whom are elected members of the Niagara Regional Council (or one third of council), used public funds to sue a citizen, a veteran, for defamation of the Authority.
With that blatant Charter of Rights violation, 2016 came to a roaring end; the call for an audit, still unheard by the Region, was making rumblings at the lower-tier municipalities; questions regarding biodiversity offsetting, the lobbyist, and A Call for Accountability, were unanswered; the NPCA was in active litigation with a citizen, a veteran who served our country proudly, in an attempt to intimidate us into silence.
We are able to see the culture of impunity truly begin to take form with Charter Rights violations, active deception of council(s) and the public, and the implementation of intimidation tactics.
January 2017 – the Ontario Auditor General
Further reading: Misinformation & Manufactured Controversy: the NPCA and the AG
2017 did not bring any new answers, rather, it brought more questions, and further controversy. With the June 2016 refusal of the Region to pass a motion for an audit of the NPCA, citizens took their concerns to the lower-tier municipalities and, by January 2017, most had passed a motion regarding an audit.
The 2017 Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the NPCA Board of Directors was held January 18th and the board discussed whether the Auditor General (AG) had the capacity to conduct an audit of a conservation authority (despite having correspondence, which was read into the record by Vice Chair James Kaspersetz, from Mayor Fred Eisenberger of Hamilton stating he had spoken with the AG Lysek and, not only did she have the authority, she had a team ready to go). The offer had a short life as the 2017 schedule was about to be set and if the NPCA board did not invite the AG to conduct an audit in January, it wouldn’t happen in 2017.
Newly minted Chairman Sandy Annunziata insisted any motion for an audit should go before the audit committee for a recommendation in advance of the February board meeting. A conference call between Chair Annunziata, member Quirk, and the AG on January 24th reaffirmed this offer. However, Chair Annunziata can be heard to repeatedly state he can not act unilaterally without board approval, in spite of the motion passed on the 18th which stated the option of the Auditor General would be explored. Arguably, this suggests board approval is already implicit; if Chair Annunziata was unsure of how to proceed due to his inexperience, he had only taken over the role of Chair a few weeks earlier, should he not have called an emergency board meeting to discuss this, as opposed to simply delaying (or potentially derailing) the audit, for 2017?
The complete conversation transcript can be found: Auditor General-NPCA transcript
And so it was, the established January deadline for Auditor General involvement passed and the new mantra of the NPCA, oft stated by new Chair Sandy Annunziata, became: the Auditor General does not have the purview to conduct an audit of the NPCA.
After months of public protest, political games and chicanery, the weather warmed as things got progressively frosty at the NPCA – for citizens, environmental advocates, and even dissenting board members. In April, the Board voted to repeal the January audit motion and replace it with one requesting the board and staff resume conversations with the Auditor General, citing interference in the process by Councillor Hodgson (who had put forth the original motion calling for an audit at the NPCA).
Spring and Summer 2017: Censure & Conflicts of Interest
In May 2017, board member, and regional councillor, Bill Hodgson is censured; why is still unclear. How did he interfere with the audit RFP process? We don’t know. Any documents relating to this alleged code of conduct violation are still not being released, despite repeated requests for what is essentially public information (even more disturbingly, Councillor Hodgson himself has ALSO been denied any documents / explanation from the Kafkaesque Authority).
As a result of this shady censure, member Hodgson chose to resign his seat from the NPCA board of directors, citing bullying and the resulting mental health drain. That’s right, not only was the NPCA maligning concerned and critical members of the public, but, by spring of 2017, they were harassing their own board members!
Following the new audit motion and Councillor Hodgson’s resignation from the NPCA, in spite of having passed a motion for conversations with the AG’s office, the NPCA continues to tell citizens and councils that it is not in the Auditors purview to conduct an audit of a conservation authority. The NPCA also continues to fail to mention the NPCA had turned down the January offer by the Auditor.
Let’s pause to fully appreciate the egregiousness of the situation, shall we?
The Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (the NPCA), a provincially legislated body, funded primarily through tax levies, and being responsible for the conservation and preservation of regional natural resources, has a board of directors made up of two thirds elected Niagara Regional Council members (one third of regional council), who have:
- Spent taxpayer dollars to hire a lobbyist for biodiversity offsetting, lied about Thundering Waters Forest being put forth for this experiment;
- Spent taxpayer dollars to file a lawsuit against a citizen, for asking questions, stating Retired RCAF Major Ed Smith was defaming the Authority; and
- Lied to municipal councils about the Auditor General and her ability to conduct an audit.
It is important to note, in the larger context of the story, this line of thought, that the NPCA does not fall within existing accountability framework, is in direct contradiction with board members statements about the importance of elected officials on the board for accountability of public funds.
To have one third (1/3) of Niagara Regional Council, whose role it is to make development policies, make up two thirds (2/3) of the only board whose role it is to conserve our lands and be the stopgate for overdevelopment, is bad policy at best.
And so it was that the political skullduggery continued through the summer and into the fall of 2017:
- Through a provincial motion, the NPCA and the Auditor General finally set a date for an audit;
- In September, the 2018 NPCA Budget is passed by the board, promptly slashing the Restoration Department while simultaneously increasing the CAO’s budget. The effect is the immediate loss of 8 long term workers while 2 new positions were created in the communications department.
(this being despite having received funding for 2017 for those positions – why did the passing of the budget comencing in January 2018 result in September 2017 action? Perhaps the current AG audit will confirm the authors opinion: the NPCA had already spent their funding on the frivolous lawsuit against Ed Smith);
- In September, the NPCA board is informed, through citizen emails, that the 10-years-old Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the NPCA and the Region is being investigated by staff for renegotiation. Citizens and board members were informed these conversations were only in regards to pricing and were not focused on the services themselves. That turned out to be false:
Finally, as the days again grew cold, we arrive at the defamation suit motions hearing, in front of Ontario Superior Court’s Justice Ramsay.
Fall 2017: NPCA vs Smith / Truth and Misinformation
Before the December 7th Press Freedom Fiasco at Niagara Region, there was the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA) versus Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Major Ed Smith (retired).
On November 21, lawyers for the NPCA argued, in Ontario Superior Court, they are not a government entity, rather, they are a charity. That’s right, a legislated body with tax levying ability used said tax dollars to have attorneys assert in front of the judiciary it is not a government entity. Let that sink in for a moment… (and be grateful our parliamentary system is designed specifically to be a check and balance between legislation and the judiciary).
By day two, attorneys for the NPCA recognized the futility of their argument and changed pleas. Attorneys now suggested conservation authorities should be afforded the rights of a corporation as Canadian public interest is not served by allowing citizens to defame or question municipalities and/or government entities.
Arguing municipalities should be able to sue for defamation flies in the face of Canadian civil liberties and the democratic process; without a citizen’s rights to express their opinion and, by extension, the right to press freedom, we begin down a dark path whereby citizens are afraid to question the government, Charter Rights are meaningless, and we are left with a culture of impunity which leads to respected veteran reporters having their notes confiscated while being told to leave a public meeting under threat of police action.
The public interest can never be well served by putting the interests of the government ahead of the interests of its citizens – particularly the right to free press, expression, opinion, and religion. To say that the government’s right to a good reputation supersedes the rights of citizens to speak out against the government is archaic and completely contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is not only our right to question, it is our fiduciary duty and the very fabric of our democracy.
Judge Ramsay agreed; section 52 of the written decision to dismiss NPCA vs Smith:
A clear victory for the people, the jubilation didn’t last; in apparent contempt for the ruling, NPCA board member Tony Quirk took to social media.
One would think the NPCA would have the grace to admit they were wrong, the public would have accepted gladly some clarity and honesty, but to continue to misrepresent the truth through the use of truncated quotes from Judge Ramsay’s decision is, in the authors opinion, shockingly arrogant.
Curtailing the judge’s words to suit your own purpose is the definition of tendentious (biased) speech, or misinformation, through obfuscation of the complete content and context. Just as the term “fake news” has become inculcated in the vocabulary of our neighbours to the south, the term “misinformation” has become part of the daily lexicon of Niagara residents; no clarification or correction is offered.
The NPCA v Port Colborne and St Catharines councils
The very same evening as NPCA spokesman Michael Reles told the St Catharines Standard “Quirk does not speak for the authority and is free to voice his opinion on the ruling”, NPCA representatives Chair Annunziata and CAO Mark Brickell appeared before Port Colborne council. It should be noted NPCA Corporate Services Director, David Barrick, a Regional Councillor for Port Colborne, was present though he spent much of the meeting looking like this:
Consider the hand-out NPCA representative gave Port Colborne council versus the complete text as evidence of the ongoing pattern of failed governance and deceitful statements, paying close attention to the last THREE (3) sentences of Judge Ramsay’s words in  as compared to the TWO (2) truncated quotes provided by the NPCA.
Following the attempt at trickery with abridged text from Judge Ramsay’s decision, Port Colborne council passed a motion for a provincial supervisor. With the release of transcripts from the January conversation between the Authority and the Auditor, St Catharines council chose to re-examine the evidence previously given them by the NPCA.
At an October presentation before St Catharines council, NPCA representatives made statements regarding the Auditor General and, in a move that would make Machiavelli proud, denied having turned down an offer from Ms Lysek’s (the AG) office. Following the victory in court, and at Port Colborne council, on December 19th, St Catharines reopened the issue and became the second municipality to pass a motion for a provincial supervisor at the NPCA.
How did we get to a place where respected St Catharines The Standard journalist Bill Sawchuk has his notes and laptop seized as he is removed from a public meeting?
We start with one third of council, as two thirds of the board of directors of the NPCA, who:
- Spent taxpayer dollars to hire a lobbyist for biodiversity offsetting,
- Lied about Thundering Waters Forest being put forth for this biodiversity offsetting experiment;
- Spent taxpayer dollars to file a defamation lawsuit against Retired RCAF Major Ed Smith for defaming the Authority;
- Lied to municipal councils about the Auditor General, her ability to conduct an audit, and turning down an offer in January 2017;
- Lied to municipal councils about the courts findings in NPCA vs Smith by curtailing Judge Ramsays words to suit NPCA purposes.
This pattern of behaviour has not been corrected, if anything, it has become more stubbornly entrenched and has seemingly infected Niagara Regional Council; what began as questions about biodiversity offsetting at Thundering Waters Forest has insidiously become the culture we see now. There is a direct correlation between the NPCA suing a citizen for free speech and a member of the press being removed from Regional Council.
In December 2017, St Catharines council found NPCA Chair Sandy Annunziata, Regional Councillor for Fort Erie, had “provided misleading information” to council and asked Niagara Regional council and the board of the NPCA to address this issue.
Next Regional Council meeting is Thursday, January 18th.
Come out and let Regional Council, and Chair Alan Caslin, know what you think about the NPCA, Chair Annunziata’s “misleading information”, Councillor Petrowski’s 30 day pay fine for the porn email, and, of course, the Press Freedom Fiasco of 2017.
According to the Oxford Dictionary:
Lie (n) – Used with reference to a situation involving deception or founded on a mistaken impression
Lied (v) – Present a false impression
Mislead (v) – Cause (someone) to have a wrong idea or impression
misleading (adv) – Giving the wrong idea or impression
Although a native English speaker, the Author is French educated and oft uses dictionaries to ensure accuracy. Any replacing of the term “provided misleading information to” with “lied to” is a result of the Authors opinion that they are synonymous, just as all views expressed are the opinions of the Author. Emily Spanton, January 16th, 2018, St Catharines Ontario.
Documents discussed can be found at:
A Call for Accountability at the NPCA Groups/FEW.Niagara/Files/PDFs/A Call
NPCA vs Smith, Justice Ramsay’s Decision Groups/FEW.Niagara/Files/PDFs/NPCA v Smith
NPCA vs Smith, Court Costs Decision Groups/FEW.Niagara/Files/PDFs/Court Costs
NPCA|Auditor Conversation Transcript Auditor General-NPCA transcript
When the Government Attacks (Canadian Democracy)
Misinformation & Manufactured Controversy
Misinformation & Manufactured Controversy: Isn’t It Ironic
or check out in-depth coverage at https://niagaraatlarge.com