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Million-dollar judicial inquiry into Collus PowerStream deal is 'serious business' says professor

Other municipalities are likely to be watching as a superior court judge delves into the 2012 deal. One lawyer says Collingwood needs to 'clear the air'
Collingwood Today File Photo

Collingwood will take one final step to find out exactly what happened in the 2012 sale of 50 per cent of the town’s utility services corporation to PowerStream Inc.

The deal will be scrutinized by a superior court judge in a judicial inquiry that will likely cost more than $1 million.

Deputy Mayor Brian Saunderson said this is the last option the town has to learn every detail of the sale.

“I think this is a cost that we’ve been forced to incur because of the fact that the documentation is not there,” said Saunderson. “The parties have not come forward to provide the documents.”

Mayor Sandra Cooper was also the mayor at the time of the Collus sale. She was opposed to the resolution for a judicial inquiry, saying she couldn't support the cost.

She suggested there were other initiatives in town where the money could be spent, including the waterfront master plan.

“We have made significant improvements to accountability and transparency,” said Cooper.

Regarding the sale, Cooper said it created a partnership to allow innovation that otherwise would not have happened.

She said she does not receive questions or comments from the public regarding the 2012 sale.

“I think if the lights go on and your dryer works when you expect it to work . . . reliable, safe energy is what we expect. That has been the case and it will continue to be so,” she said.

A judicial inquiry is a tool available to municipalities in rare cases where a judge’s authority is required to obtain documents and interview individuals under oath. It requires a council resolution to start the process. Until now, there was no resolution calling for this process.

It is costly, though council has been quoted a minimum of $1 million, it’s hard to know what the total price will be.

Andrew Sancton is a political science professor at University of Western with a particular interest in municipal government. He sent out a tweet on Feb. 27 mentioning Collingwood’s decision and indicating such inquiries are “serious business.”

“They usually end up being more complex than originally thought,” said Sancton in an interview with CollingwoodToday. “The judge has great authority to find out what actually happened. I think, generally, judicial inquiries have been very good at getting to the bottom of these things.”

Sancton said inquiries are “of great interest” to people like him who study municipal government.

In many cases, the judges recommendations have an impact beyond the specific municipality or city where the inquiry was based. In the case of Walkerton, the province changed policies on drinking water safety. In Mississauga, there was an inquiry into an alleged conflict of interest of Mayor Hazel McCallion. The judge’s recommendations helped bring about reform in municipal conflict of interest laws.

Council voted in favour of the judicial inquiry on Feb. 26 following an in camera session and a presentation by William McDowell, a lawyer hired by the town in August 2015 – at a cost of $20,000 to date – to review the information the town had on Collus transaction.

McDowell’s presentation included a list – several items long – of unanswered questions relating to the Collus sale. Some questions included: How were the terms of the RFP arrived at? Why sell 50 per cent? Was there effective oversight for the town? Where did the proceeds go?

McDowell also noted there was no formal accounting or valuation opinion provided in the documents relating to the sale.

His presentation suggests a judicial inquiry will help clear the air, provide useful recommendations about best practices for commercial transactions and aid in a “cultural shift.”

Yvonne Hamlin is a retired lawyer who specialized in municipal law during her career in Toronto. She now lives in Collingwood and was present for McDowell’s presentation on Monday night. She knows an inquiry like this one is rare, but useful for municipalities.

“There have been so many rumours about who benefited and what did or didn’t happen,” she said. “[Collingwood] is growing like crazy and we need solid procedures for the sale of public property. The public has a right to know it’s all being done above board and properly.”

Hamlin noted the Collingwood airport sale will be coming up in the future now the town has decided to sell it.

“We don’t need these rumours, allegations and innuendos about who’s benefiting,” she said. “We need a transparent process … Collingwood has to clear the air on these deals.”

Deputy Mayor Saunderson hopes this inquiry will give current council and the public some answers.

“I think the greatest missteps are yet to be answered,” he said. “There certainly are lots of rumours and I think the only way to dispel those rumours is to get the facts.”

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Erika Engel

About the Author: Erika Engel

Erika regularly covers all things news in Collingwood as a reporter and editor. She has 13 years of experience as a local journalist
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