By D’Arcy Hande (5 May 2019)
On May 1, 2019 Saskatchewan’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, Ronald J. Kruzeniski, Q.C., issued his 15th review report on the Northern Village of Pinehouse, setting forth his findings and recommendations on the Village’s failure to comply fully with an Access to Information (ATI) request submitted last December.
The ATI applicant was attempting to get background information on the appointments and salary provided to Pinehouse Councillor Greg Ross, who had served on Village Council for many years as councillor, mayor and deputy mayor. The ATI request was focusing on his last five years on council, 2011-2016, a time when his salary increased dramatically and unusually for a small village of just 1074 people.
Something had changed drastically in those five years. Mr. Ross had gone from a modest remuneration of just $4600 for his duties in all of 2010 to suddenly being paid an annual base salary of roughly $67,000 as of January 31, 2011. He had assumed new duties as “Government Relations Officer,” although the position was never offered in open competition and the job description was very poorly defined.
Prying information out of the Village a tortuous process
The ATI submitted in December 2018 was trying to determine how and why Mr. Ross was given this appointment. It asked for information about the whole process, including copies of approvals by Village council. The same information had been requested in 2016, but the process remained unexplained. Since the Village administrator boldly claimed in a November news item that her office had nothing to hide, the same applicant decided to make the request again. This time he was only a little more successful.
In his May 1 review report, the Information and Privacy Commissioner describes the tortuous FOI morass the applicant was subjected to by the Village administration. It began with the Village asking the applicant for $745 to cover copying costs. Those charges were dropped when the Commissioner’s staff asked the Village administrator to justify her estimate. The acrimony and obstruction just kept on.
When the Village only partially complied with the ATI request, the Commissioner came to the conclusion that the Village had not followed due process, had failed in its duty to assist the applicant and had failed to explain adequately why certain information would not/could not be provided. The responses by the Village leave many unanswered questions, but this article lays out what has been found and what remains hidden.
How did Greg Ross come by his village appointments and high salary?
One could ask, who is this enigmatic Mr. Greg Ross? He arrived in Pinehouse from Regina in the late 1970s to work as Manager of the local Co-op store. He met and married a local girl, then decided to stay on and raise his family in the community. Ross became Mayor of the Village in the late 1980s and has always been closely identified with the municipal leadership circle in one capacity or another.
But it was only in 2011-12, when money started flowing in from Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) and the Village’s collaboration agreement with Cameco and Areva, that Ross began to benefit so greatly from the vast increase in municipal revenue. In 2011 he earned $74,205, and then $31,325 for the first half of 2012. In 2013, his salary rose again to $71,100, and in 2014, to $75,750. In 2015, his Council remuneration dropped to $36,600, and in 2016 (his last year on Council), to $4400. By that time, he had become the project leader for Pinehouse Business North’s (the Village-owned municipal development corporation) Elders Complex. He is reported to be presently employed as CEO of Kineepik Metis Local at Pinehouse, salary unknown. The Northern Village of Pinehouse has just over 1000 people, so the high salaries paid from the public purse can’t help but raise eyebrows.
Never mind that The Northern Municipalities Act (Section 128) stipulates that “No member of council is eligible to be appointed as an employee of the municipality or of any committee or controlled corporation of the municipality in which he or she serves as a member of the council.” Although Council minutes were provided, it is still uncertain how Ross’ paid appointments were approved and took effect when they were in contravention of the law.
As mentioned above, Ross was already on the village payroll in January 2011, but there was no motion until the September minutes recorded “that the Northern Village of Pinehouse appoints Greg Ross as its NWMO lead correspondent.” In May 2012, it was approved “that Greg Ross will be the Council rep on the NWMO committee.” In January 2013 another motion was carried “that the Northern Village of Pinehouse will assign Greg Ross the duties of government relations officer as duty of council” (a title he had been using for two years already). No salary is mentioned in any of these instances.
What is more, Greg Ross was present at all these Council meetings. The Village cannot/will not say if he recused himself from the discussion and vote on these motions. There is an obvious, even glaring conflict of interest in all of this.
The provincial government intervenes
Questions readily arise about how this complete lack of due process could have transpired. How could the Mayor and Administrator have allowed this failure to comply with provincial legislation? How could the conflict of interest not be recognized? How could the provincial government not intervene?
A letter to Premier Brad Wall (copied to Minister of Government Relations Jim Reiter) in July 2016, signed by 34 concerned citizens, raised this concern as well as several other pressing issues. (The problem of village councillors being paid also as employees applied in other cases at Pinehouse, too.) It was not until October that a new Minister of Government Relations, Donna Harpauer, wrote to say,
I have asked my officials to coordinate the ministry’s intervention with municipal associations, Ministry of Justice and the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner. My officials will schedule a meeting with the Village council at the earliest opportunity to assist them in complying with the provisions of LA FOIP [Local Authority Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act].
There was no mention in the letter of other breaches of The Northern Municipalities Act by the Pinehouse administration.
Nothing further was heard by the group which had written the July 2016 letter, although according to internal Ministry documents received through FOI earlier this year (2019), the intervention finally took place in December 2016. It was later reported in a June 2017 briefing note that in the previous January the Village Administrator had advised Northern Municipal Services they were well on the way to addressing all the outstanding FOI issues. That misinformation by the Administrator caused even further delay and frustration.
The matter was by that time also under investigation by the Provincial Ombudsman after a formal complaint was launched in August 2016. But based on the Ministry’s report of substantial progress towards resolution, the Ombudsman’s office had closed its Pinehouse file in February 2017. Only after the Ombudsman’s staff was advised by the complainants that the issues were not in fact resolved, was the case re-opened and the investigation renewed. The Ombudsman’s review was stopped once again in November 2018, when another new Minister of Government Relations, Warren Kaeding, ordered a formal inspection of the Village by Mr. Neil Robertson, QC, prompted by a scathing report by the Information and Privacy Commissioner.
Have Saskatchewan Party connections influenced progress on the Pinehouse file?
The slow progress in addressing the Pinehouse problems remains a puzzle. Do the close connections between the Saskatchewan Party and the Pinehouse Village leadership have anything to do with this lack of initiative and response? Mayor Natomagan made at least one donation of $310 to the Saskatchewan Party in 2011. In 2013-17 the Northern Village of Pinehouse made several donations ranging from $320 to $1600. In 2014 Pinehouse Business North (the village-owned development corporation) sponsored the Saskatchewan Party Youth convention. Also in 2014, Kineepik Metis Local Inc., on whose board both Mayor Natomagan and Deputy Mayor Conrad Misponas serve, donated $600.
Other political connections may have come into play as well. Greg Ross ran as the Saskatchewan Party candidate for Athabasca constituency in the 2003 provincial election. His sister-in-law Laura Ross is currently Saskatchewan Party MLA for Regina Rochdale constituency.
Laura Ross and Premier Brad Wall warmly welcomed Greg Ross, his son Alex, Mayor Mike Natomagan and other Pinehouse dignitaries to the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly gallery in November 2017. Premier Wall was effusive,
We are fortunate, very fortunate as a province to have the outstanding example of local leadership in the North that we’ve seen from Pinehouse. And we want to say, through you [Mr. Speaker] to Mayor Mike, we want to thank him for that leadership, encourage him in those efforts.
Around the same time, Ms. Ross was also instrumental in bringing to Pinehouse the Hon. Ken Cheveldayoff, the candidate she had endorsed for leadership of the Saskatchewan Party. There were several reports that fall of the intense efforts to sell Party memberships at Pinehouse in the weeks before the leadership convention in January 2018.
In December 2018 news broke that Finance Minister Donna Harpauer and her partner had accepted gifts of accommodation in a Pinehouse hotel for two all-expenses-paid vacation weekends in August 2016 and August 2018. She says she thought the bills were being covered by her friend (and deputy mayor) Conrad Misponas, but it turns out it was the Village who picked up the tab. That Harpauer would accept these gifts while the Ministry and the Provincial Ombudsman were investigating the conduct of the Village leadership raises serious questions. But the provincial Conflict of Interest commissioner has exonerated her poor judgement in the matter. As questions about her role have swirled in the spring session of the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly, Harpauer recently recused herself from any Pinehouse considerations within the government.
Now that the Village of Pinehouse is under direct supervision of the Ministry of Government Relations, we can only hope that the outstanding access requests, which up to this point the Village has withheld, will now be revisited and information provided. We also hope that the Saskatchewan Party connections will not impede due process from happening promptly and efficiently. The preferential treatment and favouritism — with an all too partisan flavor — need to stop.