OPINION: Ontario’s watchdog barks and bites

Ontario’s Ombudsman is getting more oversight to probe complaints about schools and municipalities, and I say Hallelujah.

Andre Marin has been a breath of fresh air for nearly a decade now, bravely stirring the thick fug of secretive government ministries, intransigent agencies and opaque Crown corporations.

With the passage of Bill 8, the Accountability Act, Marin will have expanded reach into the so-called MUSH sectors — municipalities, universities, school boards and hospitals.

Marin’s office will still have no power to sanction the mismanagement or ineptitude it exposes. But there is little doubt he will continue to force real change using the only weapons at hand; a flare for colourful language and headline-grabbing bluster.

Marin began the job in 2005 with a bang by revealing that parents of severely disabled children, including some in Sarnia, had been forced to give up custody to get treatment for their special needs.

The tough nuts he has since cracked include MPAC, the Transportation Ministry and Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit, the secretive body of which he was once director.

Bombarded by complaints about excessive and inaccurate electricity bills earlier this year, Marin called investigating Hydro One akin to “wrestling with a slippery pig.”

He banned city lawyers from representing Sudbury politicians during a secret meeting probe, chiding councillors for having a “lawyer fetish.”

He even coined the term “rulitis” to describe bureaucratic adherence to rules at the expense of common sense.

Marin’s reputation as an aggressive crusader has made him unpopular with vested interests, including the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, which sees Bill 8 as heavy-handed.

But municipalities were given the power to create their own accountability officers six years ago, and very few did.

Sarnia councillors are unlikely to be upset by Marin’s broader authority to probe municipal government. I have seen some of them vote on issues they shouldn’t have, and others declare a conflict of interest just to avoid a contentious vote. But the pervading culture at our city hall is one of accountability.

In fact, Sarnia has earned a reputation for conducting public business in public and going behind closed doors only when necessary.

Mayor Mike Bradley, rare among Ontario mayors, openly backs Marin and believes he should be given real power to sanction transgressors. The two are birds of a feather.

Marin even cited Bradley’s description of MPAC’s methods as “Monty Python-like” when launching his probe, calling the property assessment process “aloof, mysterious and cloaked in secrecy.”

In a recent op-ed piece in the Toronto Star, Marin said Bill 8 is a step toward building an “ethical infrastructure” for all municipalities. He encouraged them to read his annual reports, or even contact him personally.

“I won’t bite,” he wrote.

But of that I have my doubts.

– George Mathewson