As a new politician, the last three months have been more than eventful. I put my name forward, and was successfully appointed, as both the Chair of the Planning and Economic Development Standing Committee and the Vice-Chair of the Niagara Penninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA). The later of which has been at the forefront of continued public attention and scrutiny since the inauguration of the newly elected Regional Council.
Leading up to and during the election I paid close attention to the NPCA, recognizing it experienced many parallels to the criticisms that plagued the previous Regional Council. There were accusations of impropriety, controversial hirings and firings, and a strong sense of public distrust that has followed the organization for a number of years. Compound this with a 102-page special audit by the Auditor General, highlighting management shortcomings and validating a number of public claims, it’s obvious that a fresh set of eyes and a different approach to managing the organization was long overdue.
The NPCA is significant to Pelham for a three main reasons. First, the organization is independently governed by the Conservation Authorities Act, and as such can impose a levy on municipalities for the purposes of delivering programs and services that further the conservation, restoration, development and management of natural resources within our watershed. In turn, the levy is collected by the Niagara Region and forms part of our municipal taxes. As such, there is a duty to the taxpayer to ensure that these funds are spent responsibly.
Second, the NPCA provides a number of essential services that directly impact homeowners such as stream flow monitoring, water quality assessment and floodplain mapping. Flooding accounts for the largest portion of disaster recovery costs annually in Canada and the NPCA has a legal mandate to review and direct development away from flood and erosion prone areas. Floodplain mapping is essential to homeowners as it allows for informed decision-making about personal emergency plans, property improvements and insurance needs.
Finally, the NPCA is steward of a number of conservation areas that are housed directly within the Town of Pelham, including sites such as the Comfort Maple, E.C. Brown, Gainsborough and St. John’s Conservation Area. These areas provide a natural and picturesque landscape that is a setting for a variety of wildlife and visitors. It also provides tremendous value to the community in providing locally accessible areas for wildlife habitat, trails for hiking and biking, bird watching, fishing and nature education. In a world filled with technology and urban sprawl, these local natural sites should be treasured and appreciated for their spectacular scenery and natural beauty. We are fortunate to have them so close to our community and the benefit they provide to our quality of life.
Currently Niagara’s twelve representatives on the Board, including myself, have been appointed on an interim basis and recently received a three month extension. This will allow us time to identify a process in which the desired skills and competencies of the Board are identified, and the Niagara Region can make appointments that are consistent with these needs. This will also allow for a process to identify and qualify citizen appointments, which can add tremendous value and expertise to the organization. Whether they participate on the Board, a standing committee, or a mixture of both, I believe they are a welcome addition to the team.
Much has been accomplished in the past three months. We’ve struck and assembled a Governance Committee to address Board shortcomings highlighted by the Auditor General’s report. We’ve also struck a permanent CAO hiring committee, which is engaging with an external search firm to conduct a candidate search that is fair, equitable and unbiased. Ensuring we secure a professional, experienced and qualified candidate to lead the organization will be essential for future success. Additionally we’ve made changes to the FOI process and will be recommending participation in the sunshine list in an effort to make the organization more transparent and accountable with our public stakeholders.
More recently, we’ve appointed an interim CAO and Secretary-Treasurer, Ms. Gayle Wood. Ms. Wood brings over 30 years in conservation experience as a senior executive to the organization and can truly reflect on and benchmark how the organization is performing, as well as identify and recommend the best practices currently in place at other conservation agencies across Ontario. Her addition to our team marks a significant shift in direction and can aid the Board moving forward.
While the difficulties at the NPCA did not develop over night, they will take time to repair. Great strides have been made in the last few months that will have a positive and long-term impact on the organization’s future. I am hopeful we can continue these gains and bring the organization to a point where the environmental services and programming are rightly brought back to the spotlight. We owe it to the organization and we owe it to the staff who work diligently towards our mandate of furthering the conservation, restoration, development and management of our natural resources. The work of the NPCA is important and I’ve been honoured to help turn the page in order to allow the organization to launch forward on a very exciting new chapter.