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Ontario's Public Sector Accountability Problem

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On 25th January 2016, Toronto Police Constable James Forcillo was found guilty for the attempted murder of Sammy Yatim in 2013. Forcillo, who was suspended after the incident for seven months with pay, was acquitted of the more serious charge of second-degree murder. Part of the case's attraction was that it was caught on video and subsequently went viral across the internet. It's hard unfortunately to beat the viewing pull of a policeman killing somebody, armed or unarmed... an industry that the US seems to lead in. Another reason that the case got noticed was that many felt it illustrated the lack of accountability of Toronto's police, that they can get away with things that they shouldn't be allowed to.

This second boulevard misses the point though. Forcillo and Yatim didn't live in a vacuum. Ontario has hundreds of thousands of public sector employees, and millions of citizens. The point that is conveniently missed is the lack of accountability in Ontario is not something unique to the relationship between police and citizen. It's not as if the police has a unique culture, interfacing with a society that the rest of the public sector doesn't engage. Accountability is a two-way process. Ontario's public sector often suffers from the sort of accountability that I've only ever experienced in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, where a public servant is a euphemism for a public master, in charge and unaccountable. We have a cultural accountability problem. The forensic focus on the police, including the recent charges against four officers for perjury and obstruction of justice, is discriminatory or merely convenient.

The societal expectations that cultivated inadequate police accountability permeate Ontario's provincial and municipal government. Before I swim further, I want to flag my experience with the province's public servants has been broadly good. With few exceptions, for what it's worth, I've had decent dealings with most public servants. Some of my work involves interacting with the City of Oshawa, and euphemisms aside, the staff there is consistently good and robust to work with. And my personal physician is brilliant. But it's precisely because there are exceptions, the few bad apples, and I've seen them too, that we need accountability to not only quickly identify but also to rectify failures - through warnings, training or even dismissal. Because, as Yatim's family know too well, not holding public institutions to account can have devastating consequences. We need real accountability; not an accountability facade.

Let's take education. As a former Co-Chair of a school council, I know it often takes years to remove bad teachers. Why? For a start, "Bad teachers are well defended by their unions, which makes it so hard to get rid of them that powerless school administrators generally give up". Then there's the regulator, the Ontario College of Teachers. It's dominated by former union folk .... whose focus was to protect teacher jobs. Hence, when one teacher reportedly made lecherous remarks to and drank with students, swore in class, slapped girls on their bums and showered with boys, he earned himself a measly one-month suspension. What was written about Nova Scotia's accountability process, applies also to Ontario's, "a regime that is guaranteeing spotless records for teachers". The government doesn't want to tackle this snug arrangement because it needs teachers' votes. Note Queens Park secretly paying the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation $1m in 2015 for bargaining costs ... incurred in bargaining with the government itself. How absurd. The student is not at the heart of Ontario's teacher accountability facade.

Now, let's dance with Ontario's healthcare, another accountability facade. The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (OCPS) is a self-regulator. Of the 39 members on the Disciplinary Committee and 63 members on the Inquiries and Complaints Committee, an astonishing 87% are physicians. In other words, physicians snugly regulate physicians. When Dr Sastri Maharajh was found guilty in 2014 of multiple instances of sex abuse against several women, the OCPS merely banned him from seeing female patients. Little wonder that a Toronto University professor who's been involved in several task forces addressing sex abuse by Ontario physicians noted the accountability process was, "protectionism of the professions as opposed to being more concerned about the welfare of patients."

"In principle, public sector employees should be more accountable than other employees. That's not because the former focus on public well-being. Nor is it because they get paid significantly more than private sector folk."

Physician mistakes contribute 38,000 to 45,000 deaths per year in Canada (they save many more lives ... let's not forget that). If the OCPS can't put patients at the center of the accountability process, you might think the law courts might. You'd be wrong. Physicians are covered by Canadian Medical Protective Association (CMPA) insurance, which is mostly paid by taxpayers. Yes, taxpayers pay for a physician's liability insurance. In 2014, Ontario taxpayers paid the CMPA more than $200m to "subsidize the legal defences of doctors charged with medical negligence, regulatory transgressions and criminal offences" against .... Ontario taxpayers. There is little accountability or public oversight of this payment. Given that "If they (the CMPA) have a $50,000 claim, they can and will spend $250,000 to defend it," only 0.1% of the potential malpractice lawsuits against physicians in Canada are actually won by patients. Which patient has the funding to take on an organization with $3.2bn in assets?

The accountability charade percolates from province into municipal. Let's take a glance at the tiff between the Box Grove residents in Markham and the City of Markham. Since 2011, Councillor Logan Kanapathi has told the residents that a small community park would be developed next to the Box Grove By Pass. The first community consultation for the park took place a lackadaisical four years later in April 2015. That's a long time to organise a first simple consultation meeting. It's a full US presidential term. During this meeting, the vast majority of residents expressed serious pushback against the City's proposed 'permitted' soccer field which would allow people from outside the community to book a soccer field months in advance, with all the accompanying traffic, noise and litter in what is a quiet neighbourhood with many young children. The 'permitted' soccer field would make the 'community' park something of an oxymoron.

In September 2015, the residents contacted Kanapathi for an update following the consultation session. No response. Another e-mail was sent. Again, no response. A third e-mail was sent in January 2016. Surprise, surprise ... no response. The City's planning team was copied in on these communications and they chose to not intervene. Frustrated with the lack of accountability, the residents contacted the immensely popular Mayor, Frank Scarpitti. It took him a mere 39 minutes to personally acknowledge the e-mail. Six days later, and only on his request, Markham's planning department provided some information to the residents. The fact that the City merely confirmed that they are proceeding in a super-slow motion manner with a 'permitted' soccer field in a community park against the wishes of the local community hasn't registered as problematic. It probably would be if they felt accountable to taxpayers. It probably would be if Ontario's citizens had a more robust culture of holding public servants to account. After all, aren't we paying for their salaries and benefits? Don't they work for us?

In principle, public sector employees should be more accountable than other employees. That's not because the former focus on public well-being. Nor is it because they get paid significantly more than private sector folk. The responsibility delta reflects the tax system. Let's remind ourselves of some stiff realities. Taxes pay the public sector. Everybody has to pay those taxes. If you have a minimum wage job, you pay tax. A kid who buys candy, pays tax. Taxes are backed by financial and custodial penalties. Unlike private sector salaries, public sector salaries are collected by force. Nobody has a choice -- and for that reason, they should be more accountable. The unfortunate reality is though that we're like to get greater accountability from a Tim Hortons than Ontario's public sector. So, if we're going to make a fuss about police accountability, let's not lose the opportunity to make the public sector in our province more accountable.

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