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Opinion, Dave Dale: Valin was right, even if he was wrong

North Bay’s ‘paucity’ of Cassellholme congruence is riveting … but not in a good way
20190125judgevalin
Honourable Mr. Justice George T. Valin poses for a photo during his swearing out ceremony in 2019. Photo by Chris Dawson/BayToday.ca.

The Honourable George Valin is in prime position to have a bit of fun with North Bay council and staff if he desires. They certainly set themselves up for a salty lesson in manners and politics, even if the city is standing on firmer legal ground.

It’s all tied to the retired judge’s findings last year as the Acting Integrity Commissioner following a substantial probe into code of conduct and conflict of interest allegations. Council didn’t seem impressed with the results 12 months ago but unanimously agreed to invite him for a discussion about it. Unfortunately for all, the direction to staff festered until Tuesday evening.

Council, meanwhile, has much bigger fish to fry right now with the Cassellholme redevelopment file a raging inferno of miscalculations.

They’re scrambling again today, along with other municipal partners, because the Cassellholme Board of Management rejected resolutions needed to meet a vital funding application deadline. North Bay thought it had a solution for its growing debt problem but it looks like they got too fancy with the legalese. They and other municipal partners had finally capitulated on the financing plan, even though they didn’t like the tender process and $122-million cost estimate, but added the caveat that Cassellholme move away from the district governance structure to a municipal one owned outright by the city.

Part of North Bay’s goal was to add the long-term care facility as a physical asset to help balance its debt liabilities. It also wanted firmer control of how it’s managed.

The Cassellholme board balked at agreement, though, stating there was a “paucity” of details provided and they couldn’t hand over the keys without extensive due diligence and community consultation.

Here’s the offensive wording and judge for yourself:

“Provided that and conditional upon the Board of Management for the District of Nipissing East irrevocably and unconditionally resolving, covenanting and agreeing in writing to execute and deliver such further and other agreements, assurances, undertakings, acknowledgements or documents, cause such meetings to be held, resolutions passed and by-laws enacted, exercise their vote and influence and do and perform and cause to be done and performed any further and other acts and things as may be necessary or desirable in order for the review and transition of Cassellholme from a territorial district home established and maintained under a board of management to a municipal home to be maintained by The Corporation of the City of North Bay, then:”

They should have just stated Cassellholme had to “explore and work toward a governance model that put the home solely in North Bay’s hands.”

It seems to be a recurring theme lately for council and Cassellholme to be both right and wrong at the same time, and it's something Valin and the subjects of his review also have in common.

The primary focus of Valin’s investigation was Mayor Al McDonald in his role as a member of the Invest North Bay Development Corporation. Also facing conflict breach allegations was board member George Burton, president of Canadore College and the INB chairman.

McDonald spearheaded INB’s creation in 2015 with the expressed intent to be an arms-length entity of the municipality for strategic reasons. Proponents claimed business leaders don’t want to be involved in public processes and they need more flexibility than a city so they can jump at opportunities quicker. Critics, including myself, warned of the pitfalls associated with such animals, specifically when they are funded through public dollars without direct public oversight.

Valin was looking into allegations that McDonald was too closely acquainted with Bill Ferguson, a principal of TWG Communications, to be directly involved in a process that awarded them a $1.2-million INB marketing contract. McDonald was a client of TWG during his three election bids with Valin going so far as describing Ferguson as his campaign manager and close friend.

Ditto for Burton as Ferguson was the chairman of the college board and part of the committee that negotiated a $1.2-M five-year extension to Burton’s contract in 2015.

Before all that, however, Valin had to decide if INB was a ‘local board’ under provincial legislation, which would mean the city’s code of conduct would apply – a key bar for any Integrity Commissioner investigation. Lawyers representing McDonald, Burton and the city argued that it wasn’t technically a local board and Valin ruled otherwise, going full force into the probe.

The cost to have Valin attend a meeting was cited among the factors in a city solicitor recommendation Tuesday to spike the whole “invite” idea. Peter Leckie’s report didn’t actually dwell on the cost, but the city lawyer laid out why there was no information value to be gained. Each one of Valin’s four recommendations was systematically pulled apart. And there was an especially convincing argument that Valin was mistaken about his core premise.

See the full Leckie report countering Valin's local board ruling here.

Not all the councillors were convinced that uninviting Valin was proper with a 5-5 split vote defeating Leckie’s recommendation and breathing new life into the controversy.

In my opinion, INB should never have been formed as anything other than a “local board” from the beginning with full public oversight. And both McDonald and Burton should have known their working relationships with Ferguson dripped of the clear appearance of conflict. They definitely shouldn’t have voted on the contract approval, especially when INB was knee-deep in the process of adopting its own conflict of interest policy at the time.

It’s hard to watch so much money being spent on Integrity Commissioners and lawyers when these investigations start rolling.

Valin could rightfully tell North Bay to fly a kite but I’d love to see him turn the tables. He should tell them he’d be happy to meet sometime after the New Year, likely by video, so they don’t have to fret about having to put out for mileage and accommodations. He could even give them the charity rate on the billable hours, seeing how things are so tight even Mayor McDonald volunteered to make cuts to his office budget the other night.

To be honest, I’d pay to hear Valin tell council what it was like to be an elected official back in the good ol’ days when Merle Dickerson was mayor.

Dave Dale is a veteran journalist and columnist who has covered the North Bay area for more than 30 years. Reader responses meant as Letters to the Editor can be sent to editor@baytoday.ca. To contact the writer directly, email: davedale@backinthebay.ca or check out his website www.smalltowntimes.ca