With an election behind us, we know our municipal leaders for the next four years, but who will be the next chair of the Niagara Parks Commission?
We don’t get to vote for that very important position — it’s a provincial appointment, and one that has been in extremely competent, trustworthy and principled hands since 2011.
Janice Thomson, also doing an exemplary job as president of our Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce, became chair of the NPC following almost two decades of troubling reports on its governance. There had been allegations of financial improprieties, commissioners were removed and audits of board expenses and procurement and contracting processes undertaken, under NDP, Conservative and Liberal provincial governments going back to the late 1990s.
Problems at the NPC became front and centre when a decision was made to renew, untendered, a 25-year lease to the Maid of the Mist tour-boat operation.
As reported in the Globe and Mail in 2009, auditing firm KPMG conducted a governance review and found several ethical breaches that had led to a drop in trust in the agency. One recommendation to get it back on track was that commissioners should be appointed based on competency, not on the ‘old boys’ club’ method used too often for political appointments.
One change in recent years, for the better, is that the NPC chair position is a limited term, and must be advertised to attract the best candidates — as long as the selection is based on getting the best person for the job.
However, it’s still the Province that appoints the chair, based on advice from Ministry of Tourism staff, and that doesn’t eliminate the possibility of cronyism, especially following so closely on the heels of a provincial election that prompted wide-spread political change.
The mandate of the NPC is to preserve land and enhance the natural beauty of Niagara Falls and almost 60 kilometres of the Niagara River corridor from Niagara-on-the-Lake to Fort Erie, including greenspace and access to the river, all of which is of great significance to the cultural landscape of Niagara and the successful tourism industry that has grown up around it.
Included in the huge responsibility the NPC has to the province are the many attractions, restaurants, retail outlets and natural trails that have been established since its inception in 1885. It is also tasked with generating sufficient revenue to continue funding the many ongoing projects required to maintain and upgrade its properties and environmental initiatives, and the 1,700 employees who contribute to the stewardship of NPC assets, all at no cost to the taxpayer.
Under the category of innovation, the NPC should be rewarded for finding a positive side to the ash borer disease, using 6,000 trees on parks property felled due to the disease, along with recycled Christmas trees, to create wetlands for marine habitat along the river’s edge. And under the category of fiscal responsibility to the province and for all of us who live in the area and enjoy NPC properties and attractions, the agency generated a surplus of $17 million last year and is on track to exceed that this year.
Even the Niagara Parks police, who provide services to a portion of NOTL and along the length of the parkway, do so at no cost to taxpayers.
While continuing to carry out the mandate of the NPC, the commission, under the leadership of Thomson, has emerged from the cloud that enveloped the agency when she took over.
During her tenure, the commission has adopted rules for conflict of interest and conduct that exceed legislated requirements, and have been approved by the Province. The commission also continues to be compliant with regard to expenses incurred by commissioners and staff.
But now, after seven years of stellar leadership, Thomson’s term is up, and the position, if not posted by press time, will likely be shortly. She is free to apply, but if she has decided whether or not she’s going to, she’s not saying publicly — the decision in this political climate could be about more than the fact that she loves her job and does it brilliantly. There may be — are certainly rumoured to be — people interested in the high-profile job.
Politicians who have been chairs or members of other Niagara governing bodies through their past elected positions, which they have lost in the recent municipal election, and also may be part of that old boys’ club KPMG recommended be avoided.
Thomson is known to play by the rules and not bow to political pressure. It’s deeply unsettling that a premier who thought even for a moment that it would be a good idea to allow developers to pave over Greenbelt lands might also think it’s okay to allow, even encourage, development along the parkway, and who might find a candidate less interested in conservation and the environment than in selling out to developers and kowtowing to the upper echelons of government.
Thomson has successfully sought to restore public trust in the NPC and maintain something irreplaceable, and of great value to Niagara and all of Ontario.
Hopefully Thomson wants another term at the helm and her value to the NPC will be recognized and rewarded — but whoever is appointed to the position should be chosen with great care, by someone who thoroughly understands and accepts the importance of the NPC mandate and all it represents, and the level of leadership required.