Ombudsman or a Public Defender?
The special committee of City Council that consulted citizens on the structure of the Ombudsman’s office has reported. The chairman expressed his astonishment that, in spite of their efforts to explain that the aim was not to hear views on the role of the Ombudsman, many persisted in raising that subject. Why? Because we recognized the consultation for what it was: a ruse to reassert the Administration’s position that the previous Ombudsman had overstepped the bounds of his mandate.
The Ombudsman’s role, they maintain, is, by law, to investigate discreetly to find solutions and point out administrative shortcomings, if any. S/He is to be, it appears, yet another layer of officialdom, having no power to do anything but whisper to whomsoever in the City’s administration will listen that some nasty things are going on that should be addressed. Further, s/he is not to take offence, if s/he is deliberately ignored. The last Ombudsman had gone too far, thus putting into question his neutrality, impartiality, objectivity, etc. He should not have insisted on being heard by Council after having been snubbed by the Executive Committee. They were embarrassed; they retaliated. And this charade of a consultation was to camouflage a decision, already made, to ensure that there would be no further problem with a crusader.
Our Ombudsman is, henceforth, to be salaried. There will be no volunteers to handle the many complaints brought to that Office. If the Ombudsman sees the need, s/he will go to the private sector and purchase the help required. All the services that were provided free by volunteer professionals for so many years, will now have to be paid for, and this out of the same budget as before. How paying all these people ensures greater neutrality, impartiality, objectivity, etc, wasn’t spelled out.
Where does this leave us? If not the Ombudsman, who then is to protect the citizen in those, albeit rare, instances when the administrative staff slip up? People who go to the Ombudsman have usually been the route of consulting city staff, without success. They may even have approached their councillor. S/he may have made efforts to solve the problem and been told that the complainant has himself to blame for his problem, not the City. Councillors being politicians, a breed of human notoriously averse to giving voters bad news, tell the aggrieved citizen to go to the Ombudsman.
Problems arise when the Ombudsman investigates and finds that the complainant has suffered as a result of what is definitely a fault on the part of the City. If the political arm refuses to accept responsibility, what then? If the politicians say, as their civil servants often do: “If they’re not happy, let them take us to court,” is that to be the end of it? Trick the unsuspecting complainant into going to court so that you no longer have to deal with him, because the matter is sub judice. It’s sleazy because the City with its deep pockets (our tax-dollars), will stall the proceedings until the poor citizen drops his claim, for want of the financial wherewithal to continue the fight for his rights.
A better approach might be to convert the Ombudsman into a public defender. He would have all the powers an Ombudsman has to investigate. In addition, where s/he is certain that the aggrieved citizen is right and the City wrong, s/he may insist that the City and the Ombudsman be heard by full Council, in one session, not to exceed three hours. At the end of the proceedings, a vote would be taken on who is right. Both sides would be allowed to provide councillors with their written arguments beforehand. The vote would be by secret ballot deposited with the clerk at the end of the proceedings. Since all members of Council would be compelled to vote, those who could not be present would submit their ballot to the clerk beforehand, for safekeeping.
This would give citizens a fighting chance at justice and unburden our overwhelmed court system.
Ronald Lefebvre, Aylmer