The who-what-when-how of the Ombudsman
The sub-committee of council overseeing the upcoming “Public Hearing on an Ombudsman Model for Gatineau” made clear, at last Wednesday’s Information Session, that the hearing is to deal with the structure and operation of the office, not the role of the Ombudsman. They want our views on the number of assistants, who should handle what, whether they should form committees, whether he should be paid, etc. Views on his duty to cry out when justice is being assaulted are not what the public hearing is prepared to entertain. As they see it, his duties and the scope of his authority are clearly set out on the City’s website.
Someone wanted to discuss the debacle surrounding the resignation of all members of the previous Ombudsman’s office. He was curtly told by the Chairman to read the Auditor General’s Report on the performance of that Ombudsman’s office, implying that council fully supported that report. That report insinuated the Office was filled with incompetents, derelict in their duties, who overspent public funds and didn’t communicate properly with City Council. It smelled of retribution for the Ombudsman’s public criticism of the administration. That the Ombudsman’s office was given no opportunity to reply is reason to worry about Council’s notion of fair play, transparency and decency.
The Committee’s expert, from academia, spoke of an ombudsman’s attributes: credibility, independence, professionalism, impartiality and neutrality. He explained that the ombudsman is not a public defender, lawyer nor judge. He and his assistants are mediators, negotiators, facilitators. They are to find solutions to citizens’ complaints. Since the people in an ombudsman’s office are more familiar with the bureaucratic maze processes, they are more apt to reach the correct civil servant, one able to act quickly.
The professor insisted the ombudsman seeks justice, not fault. He is an objective observer of how we are governed and, where good governance has been breached, bring that to Council.
What happens when the investigation reveals that the administration dropped the ball, complainants have suffered and continue to suffer as a consequence of City negligence, and that he is not satisfied with the City’s refusal to assume responsibility and take appropriate action.
According to the duties, set by the City, when the Ombudsman considers it in the public interest, she may publicly comment. That is precisely what the previous Ombudsman did, and for that, the City arranged to have his office shut down. Should we worry that this will be repeated, and the Auditor General will do a number on her too?
The City speaks out of both sides of its mouth: criticize us if you feel it’s in the public interest, but expect that there will be consequences for you, if you do.
Ron Lefebvre, Aylmer