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Brampton asks provincial ombudsman to probe downtown deal

Request from council may be stymied by ongoing legal issues.
Feb. 17, 2016
By San Grewal

Brampton councillors voted 10-1 Wednesday to ask Ontario’s Ombudsman to investigate a $500-million downtown development deal that has mired city hall in controversy since 2011.

The vote came after an hour of confusion among staff and council about the Ombudsman’s new powers to investigate municipalities, and whether or not a motion last year by Mayor Linda Jeffrey for a provincial investigation focused specifically on the downtown deal or was a general request to look at any possible wrongdoing in land deals.

“I didn’t vote for him or her to come in and look all over the city,” said Councillor Grant Gibson, referring to Jeffrey’s successful motion in May calling for a full public inquiry, under the Public Inquiries Act, into real estate transactions and procurements by the city.

The province later turned down that request, saying the Ombudsman’s office itself would be a better avenue for such a probe as of Jan. 1, when it gained new power to investigate municipalities.

Jeffrey’s motion followed a $308,000 investigation into the downtown project by external investigator George Rust-D’Eye, who had been hired near the end of the previous council term under former mayor Susan Fennell - the main council proponent of the development deal with builder Dominus.

His report was later dismissed as a “whitewash” by some current councillors, who said it had failed to properly address their key concerns.

Gibson and three other councillors said they were under the impression Jeffrey’s motion focused solely on the downtown development, saying it’s the only issue that has drawn council allegations of wrongdoing.

But Councillor Gael Miles recalled that she’d asked Jeffrey during the May meeting whether her motion included even the possibility of a probe of the downtown deal, and “She said ‘no’.”

Jeffrey, asked to clarify her intentions, said nothing during Wednesday’s debate, but later told the Star her motion didn’t include the downtown deal because the matter was before the courts in a lawsuit. “I felt I couldn’t commit the Ombudsman to do the investigation.”

Jeffrey joined in supporting Brampton Councillor John Sprovieri’s motion asking the Ombudsman to investigate the deal, while Miles registered the sole vote against it.

It’s unclear whether the Ombudsman’s office will accept the request or has taken any action so far.

“There’s been no determination by the Ombudsman that there’s going to be an investigation,” said acting chief administrative officer Marilyn Ball. Responding to questions, Ball said the city had not formally requested an investigation since the Ombudsman’s new powers came into effect.

Regardless of what council wants to focus on, she said, the scope of any probe would be at the Ombudsman’s discretion.

Former federal taxpayers’ ombudsman Paul Dube will start a five-year term as the provincial Ombudsman on April 1.

Sprovieri said he’s doubtful the Ombudsman’s office will take on the investigation as requested because of an ongoing legal issue. The city is being sued for $28.5 million by a developer who has alleged wrongdoing by city officials in the deal. The city denies all the allegations.

Councillor Elaine Moore said the city “can’t move forward” until questions about the deal are answered.