Ombudsperson closes investigation into City of Grand Forks

The Ombudsperson's office ultimately concluded that the city took proper steps to improve communications.

The Ombudsperson’s office of B.C. has completed an investigation into the ongoings at City Hall after receiving several complaints from residents. Although the ombudsperson found some areas in which the city and staff fell short regarding consultation with citizens regarding the residential water meter program, they ultimately concluded that the city took proper steps to improve communications moving forward.

The Office of the Ombudsperson is an independent body that can help determine whether provincial public authorities have acted fairly and reasonably—and whether their actions and decisions were consistent with relevant legislation, policies and procedures. Each year, they receive around 7,500 enquiries and complaints and conduct 2,000 individual investigations and early resolutions. As an independent statutory Officer of the Legislation, the Ombudsperson (Jay Chalke) cannot enforce action; however, public authorities usually accept the Ombudsperson’s recommendations.

In the Ombudsperson’s last report (2014-15), Grand Forks had 20 files opened in 2014-15, second only to the City of Vancouver’s 24. In comparison, the City of Surrey had 10, Kelowna had three, Castlegar had two, and Nelson had one. Grand Forks had 20 files still open as of March 31, 2015, the most of any municipality in B.C. By comparison, the City of Vancouver had 11, the City of Victoria had two, as did Castlegar, while Nelson had zero.

In the letter to the complainant, the Ombudsperson wrote that they received a considerable number of related complaints regarding the water meter program. “The people who contacted us were primarily concerned that the city was pushing through the project without adequate public input,” the report stated. “They believed that the decision to install individual [residential] water meters was made without proper research and without the examination of other options. According to complainants, the former mayor, CAO and council ignored all public input and refused to accept a petition signed by over 500 residents asking to delay installation or conduct a referendum on the issue.”

The Ombudsperson stated that his office focussed its investigation on whether the city adequately consulted with residents in advance of the decision to move forward with the universal water meter program.

The report stated that the investigation determined a number of reports and discussions at open council meetings from 1999 onwards, “However, it is significant to note that none of the documents explicitly informed the public that council intented to vote on the question of whether or not to adopt a universal residential water meter program. Nor did any of the documents provided by the city demonstrate that the city made an attempt to elicit public feedback on the propsed bylaw before it was adopted by council in November of 2013.”

The report recognized the city’s efforts to engage residents after the decision was made “but we had concerns about the city’s lack of public consultation in advanace of the decision to adopt the water meter program.”

“We discussed with the city that if it had consulted with the public prior to approving the iniatitive, decision makers would have been aware of the perspectives and conerns of residents,” the report said.

The Ombudsperson concluded that they asked the city to consider a public participation policy formalizing a commitment to citizen engagement on decision making, recognizing that “decisions are improved when citizens and other stakeholder groups are engaged in the decision-making process.”

The city agreed and on Dec. 14, 2015 council adopted a communications policy and procedures guideline which directs the city to apply the best practices and principles as outlined by the Auditor General of B.C.

“Based on the steps that Grand Forks has taken to improve its practice going forward, we have decided to conclude our investigation…,” said the report.

Beverley Tripp was one of the residents of Grand Forks to complain to the Ombudsperson.

“As the Ombudsperson said in the report,” said Tripp. “The complaints were about the process that was followed by the city in terms of rolling out that water meter program. My bone of contention was I didn’t think the city gave the people of the town the adequate input or listened to the input of the people.”

Tripp said although she wasn’t completely happy with the result from the Ombudsperson she doesn’t anticipate any more follow up. She did, however, send a letter to council (printed in a previous Gazette as a letter to the editor) asking for restorative justice in regards to the Julia Butler court case to help “restore the wronged party’s dignity and includes more than the basic court directive to pay for all her legal costs; and finally, the commitment to desist from any further actions along the same lines.”

Mayor Frank Konrad wouldn’t comment on the report, saying that most of the details of the report are confidential.