Bob Gale plans to use provincial “whistle-blower” legislation to ask Ontario’s integrity commissioner to look into the process the Niagara Parks Commission used to make some recent controversial decisions.
“My complaint is always (that) process must be honest and fair, especially when we are representing the provincial taxpayer,” Gale wrote in an e-mail explaining his decision to file an application with the integrity commissioner’s office. He said he planned to formally file the paperwork today.
Parks commission chairman Jim Williams wouldn’t say much about Gale’s plan to go to the integrity commissioner until he and commission staff better understand their obligations when there’s a complaint to the integrity commissioner.
“This is something I haven’t had to come across at this point,” Williams said.
As a parks commissioner, Gale has been a vocal critic of the way fellow commission members renewed a long-term lease with the Maid of the Mist Steamboat Co., despite interest Ripley’s Entertainment -owners of the Great Wolf Lodge and Clifton Hill attractions -had in bidding on the lease. If Ripley’s had taken over the lease, the company would have displaced the Maid of the Mist company that has operated since 1846, purchased its own boats and run its own tours. There was another controversy when owners of the Imax theatre complained the commission’s new Niagara’s Fury attraction will compete with their established private business.
When the parks commission voted in April to renew the Maid of the Mist lease without considering Ripley’s interest, Gale stepped down from his position as chairman of the commission’s events and marketing committee to protest the process.
Gale wants the Liberal cabinet to deny its approval of the Maid of the Mist lease until other companies are allowed to make proposals and he wants a government inquiry on the parks commission’s process for awarding contracts for goods and services it buys.
Though the parks commission has approved the lease, provincial cabinet approval is necessary before it takes effect. Ripley’s general manager Tim Parker said his company is still interested in an opportunity to bid on the lease.
“We want to know, before it gets approval from the cabinet, is there a process (by which) we can be allowed to hand over a submission,” Parker said.
Parker said he thinks Gale feels “very strongly” about openness at the parks commission and the lease renewal was “the tip of the iceberg.”
One of the responsibilities of Ontario’s integrity commissioner Lynn Morrison is to accept “disclosures of wrongdoing” from provincial public servants. It’s what’s commonly called “whistle-blower” protection that allows employees to draw attention to a problem anonymously without fear of reprisals.
Under provincial legislation, Gale qualifies as a public servant because he was appointed to the parks commission by the provincial cabinet, as Williams and the other commissioners are.
Gale said he decided to go to the integrity commissioner because he didn’t get any response from a 90-minute meeting he had in Toronto with senior Ministry of Tourism officials about his concerns two weeks ago.
“I was advised that this is the next step I can take to have the Liberal provincial government take a look at the unfair process and lack of due diligence” at the parks commission, Gale said.
Williams said Gale has the right to go to the integrity commissioner, but added it might be unnecessary because Ministry of Tourism staff are aware of his concerns.
“This is something he feels strongly about. He has that right … We can only let the process go where it goes,” Williams said.
Ministry of Tourism officials are “well informed” about Gale’s concerns about the process on the Maid of the Mist lease and Imax issues, Williams said.
“The ministry has been fully briefed on everything he takes issue with.”
Gale’s decision to go to the integrity commissioner comes two days after Niagara Falls city council endorsed a resolution calling on the provincial government to force the parks commission to be open, transparent and accountable.
Williams said the commission is accountable to the public, but in a different way from how municipal councils are. Though its meetings are closed to the public, the commission answers to Ontario’s tourism minister through annual reports, audited statements, monthly financial statements and it must get cabinet approval on major expenditures.
A spokeswoman for Tourism Minister Peter Fonseca said his office had not yet received the formal resolution from Niagara Falls city hall.
“When we do receive it, the minister and ministry will be reviewing it,” said Fonseca’s spokeswoman Alicia Farrow, adding the Liberal government is committed to openness in all areas of government.
“We take anything that comes into us. We take it under advisement,” Farrow said.
In his e-mail, Gale commended Liberal MPP Kim Craitor for fighting for transparency in the parks commission and Conservative MPP Tim Hudak for understanding the parks commission should be reigned in if it strays from its mandate.
Craitor said Gale is a credible person who is passionate about openness in government.
“He feels strongly the public has a right to know about the process. Bob is using what he feels are the avenues that he has open to him,” Craitor said in a phone interview.
The Review contacted the office of Hudak late Wednesday afternoon for reaction to Gale’s latest move, but the paper’s call was not returned.
Coun. Carolynn Ioannoni, who introduced the city’s resolution, said the Ministry of Tourism shouldn’t make Gale go to the unusual step of filing a complaint with the integrity commissioner. Gale’s three-year term on the commission expires in February. He said he doubts if the government will renew it after all the noise he has made. But he vowed to use the remaining seven months to push for more openness
“He is sincere enough in his heart to know something is broken. How do you … fix it?” Ioannoni said.
“As a Liberal, I’m a little ashamed of having my Liberal government having the integrity commissioner force them to do the right thing,” Ioannoni said.