After 18 years of sitting on Regional council representing Niagara-on-the-Lake, Gary Burroughs was not happy that his final vote of his final meeting last week helped send Regional CAO Carmen D'Angelo to China.
He has received negative fallout from that vote, he said, from those who question his apparent support of the CAO, but in retrospect he believes he did what's best for the region.
The final meeting of the outgoing council is traditionally held to allow Regional councillors who will not be returning to the table a chance to say goodbye and thank you to their fellow councillors and constituents, a sort of feel-good farewell, which they did. But not one mentioned the controversy surrounding the tainted hiring of the CAO and subsequent renewal of his contract by Chair Alan Caslin, without council approval, or the decline in trust of Regional government that was behind the large turnover of councillors.
At last Thursday's traditional exit meeting, said Burroughs — after 10 years on Regional council as NOTL's lord mayor, four as chair and the last four as a Regional councillor — there was also business that had to be discussed, including the trip to China. It had appeared D'Angelo's representation at the trade expo was a done deal, first made public after the Oct. 22 municipal election. But following dissension from some councillors, D'Angelo announced at Thursday's meeting that because of the “distraction” his attendance would cause, he wouldn't be going after all. His hiring and contract renewal continues to be investigated by the provincial ombudsman.
The new council does not meet until Dec. 6, and the China trade mission begins this Monday, Nov. 5.
Regional council has been considered in lame duck status since the start of the election campaign, defined under the Municipal Act as having fewer than three-quarters of its members running again. Following an election, it usually refers to elected officals whose successors have been elected but not taken office. It limits council as far as what it can vote on, and sets a $50,000 cap on expenditures, said Burroughs.
The trade mission is expected to cost taxpayers less than $10,000 for two plane fares, D'Angelo's and one staff member who will accompany him, with the rest of the tab being picked up by a local businesses, said Burroughs.
The most appropriate choice to represent the Region was busy — Dominic Ursini, the Region's director of economic development, could not go because he will be attending a conference in Mississauga at the same time, D'Angelo told Regional councillors Thursday, but Burroughs said the HwyH2O conference Ursini is attending doesn't begin until Nov. 13. That councillors continued to be misled right up to the end of the term is disturbing, he added.
Outgoing Grimsby councillor Tony Quirk, along with Bart Maves and Selina Volpatti, also attending their last meeting as Regional councillors, all spoke of the significance of the mission and supported sending D'Angelo, saying he was the appropriate person to represent Niagara. They made the point that the Chinese like to meet with people who are high up in the echelon of politics or business, and D'Angelo had his visa ready to go.
“It's disappointing everybody jumped on this as another political football,” said Maves, reminding Regional councillors the Shanghai expo is being led by Larry Vaughan, president of Canada BW Logistics of Niagara Falls, a company that has a strong relationship with China and had invited the Region to participate. The Niagara region is in an unusual position along the border, in the foreign free trade zone, he said, which allows manufacturers to ship goods in and out of Niagara without tariffs. “We're letting petty politics get in the way of this.”
Walter Sendzik, re-elected mayor of St. Catharines, and Tim Rigby, re-elected Regional councillor for the city, both spoke against sending D'Angelo, and also voted against a motion to allow him to attend, which was made by Quirk, the Grimsby councillor known to be part of the cabal, the name given to Regional councillors who have supported Caslin and D'Angelo.
Rigby said with a lame duck council and the accompanying reduction in power, it was an “inopportune time” for the CAO to be attending any event as a Niagara representative outside the Region, never mind on the other side of the world, and suggested there were other “partners” in economic development who would be better choices to go along as part of the trade mission.
It was as a result of a conversation with Rigby, D'Angelo said, that he decided not to make the trip.
But when asked at Thursday's meeting, D'Angelo agreed if it was the will of council for him to attend, with support from Niagara business partners, he would go.
The vote was tied, with outgoing chair Caslin required to break it, but before he cast his vote, he requested a recess to allow him to talk to the CAO. When he was reminded he could not call a recess with a motion on the table waiting for his vote, he had a brief conference with D'Angelo, then broke the tie to send the CAO on his way to China.
Perhaps the only surprise in the recorded vote, said Burroughs, was his — the others approving the motion were known to be D'Angelo's supporters, whereas his votes at Regional council, going back as far as the hiring of the CAO, indicated he was not one of them.
“It was a tough decision for me,” said Burroughs, but knowing the Chinese delegates would want to have someone high up in the hierarchy of the Region to talk to, and given the short timeline, he felt it was best for the economic success of the Region that the CAO attend.
“This was about the trip, and the trip is good for Niagara,” said Burroughs.
In retrospect, if he had voted against the motion, there wouldn't have been a tie for Caslin to break, he said.
“It's unfortunate that was my last vote, on the last issue at the last council meeting, and I know it looks bad,” said Burroughs. He would rather have seen Ursini go, and saying the economic development director couldn't attend because of the other conference was misleading, “but in my heart I think it was right for the region.”
Pat Darte, also attending his last meeting as a Regional councillor, joined Burroughs in his support of sending D'Angelo to China. Darte said he believes he's been considered one of the cabal because of his affiliation with the Progressive Conservative Party, although his voting record at the Region was non-partisan, as was his vote on the China trip.
“It was a simple decision,” he said, but one that was made complicated by politics.
For the success of the trade mission and the good of the Region, “if you take the politics and the personalities out of it, he was the one to go.”