April 6, 2021 (3.5 Minute Read)
The Ontario Ombudsman has dismissed complaints related to hiring practices in the City of Brampton…again… and has recommended that the City “insulate” their complaint process from “abusive, unreasonable, persistent, or harassing members of the public”.
Provincial instruments are once again being used as a political football to score points.
The Ontario Ombudsman, and the City of Brampton, received several anonymous emails claiming abuse of process in hiring staff. They also received other emails from former politicians who are desperately trying to cling back to power by making unsubstantiated allegations.
It is the prerogative of the Ontario Ombudsman to conduct an investigation into the allegations they receive.
Last year, the Ontario Ombudsman conducted an investigation into Council’s 2019 hiring process of David Barrick in Brampton. Then, a year later, the Ontario Ombudsman returned to Brampton to investigate other hiring decisions.
Interestingly, the decision to hire David Barrick was a unanimous decision of Council. Then, a minority of Brampton politicians were openly commenting on these complaints and the unsubstantiated allegations, thereby spreading disarray within the community. These Councillors are participating in political games at a significant cost to taxpayers who have to pay for the public body investigations.
Brampton CAO Hiring Process
The Ontario Ombudsman has the legislative authority to investigate decisions of municipal Councils, including the decision to hire a Chief Administrative Officer. In 2020, the Ontario Ombudsman received “complaints from individuals who raised concerns about the transparency and accountability of the City’s hiring process”. The allegations were highlighted and exaggerated in local media stories, anonymous emails, and social media discussions. The allegations then received comments from certain politicians.
The legislative powers of the Ombudsman are significant. As per the Ombudsman Act, the Ombudsman’s powers are deemed “paramount”, and they can investigate any decision, make any inquiries, request any document, interview any person, and summon any individual under oath. There are few legal exceptions.
After their first review in Brampton, the Office of the Ontario Ombudsman sent a letter to Brampton’s City Clerk Peter Fay (dated May 28, 2020), where Ombudsman lawyer Jean-Frederic Hubsch wrote, “As we discussed, our review indicates that the City has policies and practices in place to protect the fairness and transparency of staff/official hiring, which are consistent with the Ombudsman’s recommendations from the Inside Job report. Our review did not identify any concerns with respect to the application of existing policies to the hiring processes in question”. The Ontario Ombudsman did recommend that the City could improve their existing recruitment policy by enhancing confidentiality provisions, which were unrelated to the anonymous complaints they received.
City has policies and practices in place to protect the fairness and transparency of staff/official hiring…Our review did not identify any concerns…– Ontario Ombudsman, May 28, 2020
The Bramptonist sent questions to Brampton Councillors asking for comment. Councillors Pat Fortini and Gurpreet Dhillon refused to comment directly claiming they had not seen the “reports”. Being coy and elusive, the Councillors requested the Bramptonist to produce the associated Ombudsman reports. If there were any reports, the responsibility to distribute Ombudsman reports lies with the City Clerk, not the media.
The Bramptonist has observed, the Ontario Ombudsman does not produce “reports” when they review a matter and dismiss the associated complaints. Instead of a report, the Ombudsman will send correspondence to the municipality indicating they have concluded their work. Sources close to the Bramptonist confirmed that both Councillors Fortini and Dhillon received the Ombudsman letter dated May 28th.
Councillor Jeff Bowman simply dodged the questions.
The Second Ombudsman Review
A year later, the Ontario Ombudsman was back in Brampton for a second time. For this second investigation, the Ombudsman was reviewing additional hiring practices. And once again, the Ontario Ombudsman dismissed the allegations contained in the complaints.
In fact, the Ontario Ombudsman’s lawyer recommended, and referred to the City of Brampton, “policies developed by other municipalities to help insulate their complaint processes from abusive, unreasonable, persistent, or harassing members of the public”. The Ombudsman lawyer included references from the Town of Wasaga Beach’s Handling Unreasonable Customer Behaviour and the Ombudsman’s own report in the Township of Red Rock entitled Counter Encounter.
insulate their complaint processes from abusive, unreasonable, persistent, or harassing members of the public– Lawyer, Office of the Ontario Ombudsman
In response, Councillor Martin Medeiros wrote back to the Bramptonist with, “This is good news”. Oddly, he continued to request a telephone interview with the Bramptonist.
Other comments received, included one from Councillor Michael Palleschi, who wrote, “As far as I know, all of the hiring practices, policies and procedures were followed.”
Mayor Patrick Brown commented, “It’s a vindication of our hard-working staff. They don’t deserve to have false smears and I am glad the Ombudsman has set the record straight.”
Councillor Charmaine Williams noted, “I was pleased to see that the Office of the Ontario Ombudsman’s review of Brampton’s hiring practices concluded that all policies and procedures were followed by the City. It is important that staff and residents have complete confidence in all 3 levels of government, especially at the municipal level, which has the greatest impact on their daily lives.”
Adding to the discussion was Councillor Rowena Santos, who commented, “During our most recent Council meeting we discussed HR policies and the importance of creating a respectful and harassment free workplace for staff. Anonymous complaints which name specific members of existing staff can cause a toxic and unsafe work environment. It can potentially damage the reputation and future careers of existing staff, especially if found to be baseless. A process to deal with such anonymous complaints would be in line with our policies to create a respectful workplace free of harassment.”
Using Provincial Instruments as Political Weapons
Many of the vexatious emails received by the City of Brampton are anonymous and sent via a European-based email provider. The Bramptonist has learned the emails used to file anonymous complaints to the City of Brampton come from a Switzerland company that boasts, “No personal information is required to create your secure email account. By default, we do not keep any IP logs which can be linked to your anonymous email account.”
This is a vicious mode of communicating and spreading falsehoods in order to attack your political opponents.
The Ontario Ombudsman has invested considerable taxpayer dollars in their investigations in Brampton. They concluded, twice, that the complaints were unsubstantiated and recommended Brampton establish a frivolous and vexatious complaint management process.
Through all the smoke and mirrors, the Ontario Ombudsman found that all policies in Brampton were followed related to their hiring practices. But at what cost to those involved? Brampton Council needs to safeguard their staff from frivolous and vexatious complaints that are implemented to impair professional reputations.
“I think that the City should lead by example.” says Councillor Santos, “Our staff have worked hard. The City of Brampton has recently been recognized as one of Canada’s top employers. We have managed through challenging and uncertain times during this pandemic while still delivering on our Council priorities. This speaks to leadership and teamwork. Our team has delivered for the city and the anonymous complaints are inconsistent with the reality.”
The words of wisdom of Councillor Williams should be heeded, where she wrote, “I make it a priority to treat members of the public, other elected officials and staff appropriately, without abuse, bullying or intimidation, paying special attention to ensure that their workplace is free from discrimination and harassment. I look forward to reviewing any recommendations that would strengthen this priority.”