Niagara Falls businessman Bob Gale said he has more information on controversy and mismanagement at the Niagara Parks Commission. And new NPC chairwoman Fay Booker said she wants to hear it.
Booker, who took over the top job at the Commission in May only to find herself in the midst of a seemingly never-ending maelstrom, told Bullet Media Wednesday she would welcome the opportunity to meet with Gale to listen to anything he has to tell her.
Revelations this week that a former Niagara Parks Commission executive spent almost $400,000 on his corporate credit card from 2006-09, and that the expenses were not vetted by anyone, are just the tip of the iceberg at the 125-year-old public agency, according to Gale, a Parks commissioner from 2006-09.
He said he knows more 'scandals' are yet to be uncovered, but he cannot talk about them because of a confidentiality agreement. Gale says the Ontario Ministry of Tourism and the Ontario Integrity Commissioner know all of his concerns. He met with representatives from both offices in 2008. Still, he said he’d be willing to go over the ground again with Booker.
In 2008 it was revealed the NPC had quietly awarded an untendered 25-year lease to operators of the Maid of the Mist tour boat excursions. That came to light only because of Gale, who eventually quit his position as chairman of the Commission marketing committee. When his continued complaints to fellow commissioners and the government fell on deaf ears, he brought his concerns to the Ontario Integrity Commissioner.
It then took two government reviews before the Ministry of Tourism ordered the Niagara Parks Commission to conduct a competitive bidding process for the Maid of the Mist lease, which is currently under way. Sources tell Bullet Media that contract is worth $7-10 million in revenue annually.
“I would gladly tell her what I know,” Gale said. “I want it cleaned up.”
Niagara Falls MPP Kim Craitor said he is encouraged by the possibility of a Gale/Booker meeting to discuss the past. He said he brought up the question of the confidentiality agreement during a meeting Wednesday with Tourism Minister Michael Chan.
“The answer was that (Gale) should take legal advice to see where he stands on that. No one was willing to advise him one way or the other on what he can do. Everyone else seems to be talking right now, though; I personally would like to see him tell what he knows publicly. I want everything out in the open so we can deal with it.”
Gale said he has in fact sought a lawyer’s opinion and, was told not to do anything that could leave him in violation of the four-page pact every commissioner is required to sign. Booker said that’s another reason she should meet with him.
“I think it might be prudent if I sit down with Mr. Gale and have a chat about the past, and he would be able to share with me without worrying about possibly breaching the agreement.”
Booker spent much of Wednesday dealing with reaction to news that prior to her arrival in May, Joel Noden had used his corporate credit card to charge $395,751 on nightclubs, liquor, roller-coaster rides and plane fares. Noden left his $130,000-a-year job as the NPC executive director of revenue operations, marketing and business development last week. Booker said in an interview she is looking for ways to deal with the past while at the same time steering the troubled Parks Commission into a new era of accountability and transparency.
“When I talk accountability, I think of it as how someone outside the organization will look at the activities. The figure being used here is just about $400,000 over three years. That is a lot of money. When you look at the amount of money an average person makes in a year, that is a lot of money to them.
"Now Mr., Noden had a job that required him to travel. And so there will be a certain amount of expenses for travelling when you are in the job of being a salesperson for Niagara Parks Commission. There is going to be airfare and hotels. I think the next thing the average person would ask is, ‘OK, are you staying in the Holiday Inn, or are you staying in luxury. I know when I travel for business I stay at a Holiday Inn. I don’t stay at the Fairmont.”
One of Noden’s bills was $10,729 for a hotel stay in London, England, according to a report in the Globe and Mail.
Craitor, who has said someone should lose their job at the Parks Commission over this, but hasn’t said whom, called for a forensic audit of the NPC Tuesday. He discussed that with Chan on Wednesday afternoon, but didn’t receive assurances that it would take place.
“We’re considering all the possibilities, all the suggestions, all the opinions,” Craitor said Wednesday night. “Everyone is calling and writing and e-mailing. We’re looking at the best way of moving forward. Some don’t think we should do anything; they think everything is OK.”
Jim Williams, former Parks Commission chairman, on Wednesday was quoted in the Globe and Mail saying he couldn’t understand all the fuss since Noden’s expenses passed two provincial audits. That claim has been disputed by the Tourism Ministry, and now by Booker. She has requested copies of the audit reports from Parks Commission general manager John Kernahan.
“These three years we are talking about were under the past chair and the general manager,” Booker said. “I would expect him to come to the table and accept responsibility.
“I have seen one report that did not look at how expenses were handled. But if there are two other reports out there, I’m quite happy to take a look at them and see if the auditor-general really did a review of how expenses were incurred and approved.”
Booker said she is not averse to a full audit of the Parks Commission, as Craitor suggests, but would like to make sure the organization gets value for the expense.
“My focus is how to make Niagara Parks Commission successful going forward. If there are going to be residual concerns over past practices, then we need to understand those and focus on how to deal with them. If we are going to use public money to go back in history and do reviews, then let’s focus on what we want to accomplish.”
Chan did not consent to an interview with Bullet Media Wednesday. His spokesman issued an e-mail statement, which said in part: “The Niagara Parks Commission has always been a completely self-funded agency operating at no cost to the Ontario taxpayer. That said, these expenses are simply not acceptable. There is currently an audit process under way. The audit will look at the Commission’s compliance with the expense rules directive.”
Booker added the Parks Commission is in the process of hiring an internal auditor who will look after things like expenses, procurement, revenue-generating contracts, and making sure policies are being followed.
The Parks Commission, which has about 300 employees, is a Crown agency accountable for the preservation and administration of lands in and around Niagara Falls. While technically it receives no government funding, it functions with the financial backing and assurances of the province. The Parks Commission has lost money for at least four straight years, despite Niagara Falls being the busiest and most popular tourist attraction in Canada.