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Empower Marin

February 2, 2012 permalink

In his portrait of Ontario ombudsman André Marin Windsor Star columnist Chris Vander Doelen explains why the current Ontario legislature is a unique opportunity to expand the powers of the ombudsman to the MUSH sector, including children's aid societies.



Vander Doelen: Watchdog has bark and bite

Ontario ombudsman Andre Marin revealed himself as a man of contrasts when he met this week with The Windsor Star's editorial board.

Marin's media clippings paint a picture of a sometimes polarizing, publicity seeking media missile. In his six years as ombudsman to Ontario's 11 million citizens, he's been adept at whipping up headlines as his staff dig up dirt on Ontario's often incompetent and sometimes heartless bureaucracy.

If you've heard of him, you know his office of 90 investigators has exposed the lottery scams that saw convenience store owners ripping off legitimate winners, and the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation's casual cruelty to homeowners overtaxed by its bad computer programs.

Marin says he was expecting to field about 75 complaints about MPAC's flawed property assessments when that problem first cropped up; instead his staff were swamped with 4,000.

Recently Marin made headlines again with his criticism of police chiefs who fail to notify or co-operate with Ontario's Special Investigations Unit when they mess up. In Windsor, that turns out to be quite often.

On the other hand ... well, Marin isn't that much of an outsider, being a career bureaucrat himself. He even looks the part in his mandarin's uniform: finely tailored blue suit, with French cuffs on an expensive shirt which appears to be filled out by gym-buffed trunk.

If it isn't a put-on for the media, I have to admire the tough talk Marin dishes out when he talks about the widespread performance problems he finds in provincial government. They don't get the attention they deserve from an Ottawa-obsessed media.

Marin speaks of our underachieving provincial government in the scathing tones average taxpayers often use when complaining about public services. He slams politicians and senior bureaucrats for being "mealy-mouthed" when he drops a damning report in their laps, rather than looking for solutions.

Government liaison officers, he scoffs at one point, are really just "cheerleaders" for the institutions they work for, not really public liaison officers at all.

Ontario so-called tough rules on open municipal council meetings "are a farce," Marin says - any of the province's 444 towns and cities can simply opt out of them when they please. Naturally, 253 of them have done so. But the rest can't be punished for breaking the rules anyway.

SIU, which he acknowledges has its hands full investigating a mushrooming culture of police errors and coverups, shouldn't be treating its reports "like a state secret," he says. Amen.

And when it comes to problem incidents involving police, current cop culture seems dominated by time-wasting (or is that job-creating?) procedural dances. "Cut all the bureaucracy!" he says of police reporting procedures.

It is the job of the government of the day to deal with these problems. That would be the Liberal government of Premier Dalton McGuinty.

Except, Marin hints, "there appears to be on the part of government fear of dealing with the police."

Now why would the government fear police forces they are supposed to be in charge of ? Are Liberal MPPs afraid of being tagged for traffic violations or for something worse? This is where the other Marin reappears. Despite the gunslinger pose, Marin's tough talk tends to melt away when politically sensitive questions are put to him.

For instance, Marin thinks it's absurd that Ontario is virtually the last province in Canada to bar its ombudsman from investigating the vast MUSH sector of public services: Municipalities, Universities, Schools and Hospitals.

Marin would also like to be able to probe into the operations of longterm care facilities, and possibly child services. Can you imagine the tidal wave of complaints he'd get on health care alone, even without the problems in Ontario's 53 Children's Aid Societies? He would pine for the days of a mere 4,000 complaints.

But Marin doesn't seem ready to pounce on a rare opportunity to have his powers expanded the way he thinks they should be, now that Ontario has a minority government.

A succession of Liberal, Conservative and one NDP government since 1975 have refused to give the ombudsman expanded authority in Ontario.

The NDP and the Tories tried to correct that oversight last year when both parties supported Bill 183, a private members bill to expand the reach of the ombudsman's office. But the Liberals outvoted them.

It's the ombudsman's job to get under the skin of government, and by that measure alone the publicityseeking Marin has been a success.

Now that the NDP and the Tories outnumber McGuinty's minority Liberals, this is the time to ask for those powers again.

Source: Windsor Star