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Ombudsman powers expanded to include school boards and municipalities

TORONTO - Ontario will take a "huge leap' with proposed legislation to expand the powers of the ombudsman to provide oversight of municipalities, universities and school boards, Ombudsman Andre Marin said Thursday.

Those three sectors get over $30 billion a year in direct provincial funding with virtually no oversight on how they spend it, said Marin.

"It's going to allow Queen’s Park to follow the money," he said. "The oversight of municipalities will include all the different boards within the cities, for example the police services board, so it's going to be a huge leap in jurisdiction."

Marin said his office has had to turn away about 2,000 complaints a year because it had no jurisdiction over those areas, leaving people with virtually nowhere to turn.

The bill would also give Ontario's children's advocate new powers to deal with complaints about children's aid societies, and create a new patient ombudsman for hospitals, long-term care homes and community care access centres.

Marin, who has long pushed for the authority to investigate the so-called MUSH sector — municipalities, universities, school boards and hospitals — said he didn't think a separate patient Ombudsman was the right way to go. He wanted his office to handle those duties.

"We'll call it the MUS sector, because we lost the H," quipped Marin. "The patient ombudsman unfortunately reports to the bowels of the bureaucracy, not to the minister, not to the legislative assembly." As an independent officer of the legislature, Marin reports directly to the legislative assembly.

However, Marin did welcome the fact the government is moving to give patients with complaints about the health-care sector somewhere to turn.

"At long last, Ontario is poised to rectify the accident of history that left millions of citizens with nowhere to complain about the public bodies that touched their lives most closely," he said.

Government Services Minister John Milloy said the Liberals decided it would be best not to give the ombudsman additional powers to provide oversight for hospitals, long-term care homes and children in custody of the state.

"There was a feeling that a sector-specific ombudsperson who could look into that whole range of issues, who would have the expertise to look into health-care issues was the way to go," he said. "The same with the children's aid societies, to give it to an officer of parliament, the child advocate."

Premier Kathleen Wynne said the bill would also force MPPs to post their expenses online and give government the power to impose caps on salaries of public sector executives, including hospital CEOs and officials at Hydro One, Ontario Power Generation and the LCBO.

"I came into this office, just over a year ago, saying I was going to do government differently, that we were going to open up and be more transparent, and that is what we're doing," she said.

There's no details yet on what sort of salary caps the Liberals would impose, but Wynne said it would be done on a sector by sector basis, with differing limits on total compensation packages.

"This legislation will pave the way for those hard caps to be put in place," she said.

The Opposition said the Liberals had 10 years to be open and transparent, but instead tried to cover up their decisions to cancel two gas plants prior to the 2011 election at a cost of $1.1 billion, and have no credibility on accountability.

"This is the most corrupt government possibly in the history of Ontario," said Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak. "If you actually want transparency and accountability in government, then change the government."

Wynne rejected accusations the bill was simply crass political opportunism because the Liberals know it stands little chance of being approved before a vote on the spring budget, which could trigger a provincial election.

"I can't predict what the outcome of the introduction of the budget is going to be, but I expect that there should be all-party support for this," she said. "The politics of election or not, that is a separate issue from doing government in a way that is accountable to the people of Ontario."

Another measure in the bill, which Wynne said would be introduced in a few weeks, would clarify the rules for keeping government documents so they aren't destroyed in an attempt to avoid freedom of information requests.

Police are currently investigating the deletion of emails by officials in former premier Dalton McGuinty's office related to the Liberals' $1.1 billion decision to cancel two gas plants prior to the 2011 election. There is also another police investigation into financial irregularities at the province's Ornge air ambulance service.

The Canadian Press


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