No N.L. ombudsman to handle complaints about municipalities
When Jessica Dellow had concerns about a proposed townhouse condo development next door to her house on Mount Cashel Road, she decided to do something about it.
The St. John’s lawyer and her husband, also a lawyer, paid for an independent assessment of the project, which outlined the couple’s concerns with density and shadowing.
City council has since voted to allow the project to proceed over the objections of many of its future Mount Cashel Road neighbours, and Dellow and her husband are considering their options, including a judicial review.
But Dellow noted in May she’s concerned that other residents might not have the resources she and her husband do to challenge the city.
“We are fortunate enough, we don’t have children and we have the money that we can afford to get that, but not every citizen in
St. John’s can get that, and we don’t think that every citizen should have to do that to engage with the city on an issue like this,” she said.
One solution might be an ombudsman to whom citizens can bring complaints about municipal administrations — but the city doesn’t have one.
“Complaints that come through the Access Centre are directed to the appropriate department for followup. Complaints often come through councillors directly and are addressed back through them to their constituents,” Susan Bonnell, the city’s manager of marketing and communications, wrote in an email to the Telegram.
A select few Canadian cities — Toronto, Laval and Montreal — have their own ombudsman. In other provinces — Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and British Columbia, for example — the provincial ombudsman handles municipal complaints.
While Newfoundland and Labrador has the citizens’ representative of Newfoundland, the office — like counterparts in Alberta and Saskatchewan — doesn’t address complaints about municipal governments.
Barry Fleming, Newfoundland and Labrador’s citizens’ representative, said when his office receives a complaint about a municipal administration, he refers it back to the local government.
“We get plenty of people who come to us, thinking that we can provide an ombuds’ service for municipal decisions. We have to then refer them to their city council, either ward councillor in St. John’s, or one of the city councillors or municipal town councillors, depending upon the geographic area,” he said.
Christine Deslisle-Brennan, acting ombudsman for Nova Scotia, said it can be tricky when a resident feels his or her representative — or the council as a whole — is the problem, which is why an independent look at the complaint is a good idea.
“That’s what we do here,” she said, adding that an ombudsman usually gets involved only when all other options have been exhausted. “Usually you’re — it sounds strong — the office of last resort. So you have to go through an internal appeal process or complaint resolution processes first. … What we’ll do is we’ll try to refer them back through their councillor first if they haven’t been able to resolve it. If the councillor’s part of the complaint, then obviously we wouldn’t refer them back. What we would do is look for the most appropriate next level up within the municipality who they could go to with the complaint.”
St. John’s Mayor Dennis O’Keefe said the way the city handles complaints is working — and if a resident feels the problem is with their ward representative, he or she can approach any other member of council.
“Usually if somebody has a particular issue, they would contact either a ward councillor or an at-large councillor or me, for that matter,” said O’Keefe. “There are 11 of us who are essentially elected to do just that sort of thing, if people feel they have an issue or are not being treated fairly.”
Dellow said this week she didn’t think that was good enough — especially since councillors are usually very busy. Her attempts to contact her ward representative, who is no longer on council, were fruitless.
“There are a lot of demands on councillors, for their time, and I don’t know that that’s an adequate response,” said Dellow, who noted the representative was in favour of the project in principle. “There would be some difficulty there in terms of being independent and neutral.”