Accountability in City Government: The City of Toronto's Ombudsman

Municipal government has a responsibility to provide services that are fair to all of its communities. As part of that accountability, the Ombudsman was established by the City of Toronto Act, which assures that this office is independent. My role is to provide a ‘check and balance’ – to even the playing field between citizens and their government.

We are here as an office of last resort for citizens to turn to when all else has failed, when people have tried to resolve complaints with the City and have been left dissatisfied with their results.

I am an advocate for fairness in government administration, squarely in the middle – impartial – with no vested interest in the outcome of a complaint except that the public was treated fairly by the City’s civil service.

I look at three aspects of fairness: substantive, procedural and equitable.

Substantive fairness concerns the fairness of the decision itself. Procedural fairness is about how the decision was made – the steps followed before, during and after a decision is made. Equitable fairness has to do with how people are treated. It is about ensuring that people are treated fairly, not necessarily identically. That means taking into account factors such as education, age, literacy level, language, geographic location, socio-economic status and ability.

A case in point: we investigated a complaint from the son of a senior with dementia whose tree on her private property was cut down by the City. The complaint raised broader issues about how the City treats people with diminished capacity.

Over a period of nine months, the owner’s son tried to negotiate with the City on his mother’s behalf but got nowhere. The City misapplied a by-law in cutting down the tree when there was a cheaper alternative – and then charged the owner thousands of dollars for it. I found that the City failed at every turn to deliver the level of service residents are entitled to expect. There was no attempt to adapt any procedures for someone who they knew was unable to understand the consequences of the order, let alone defend or negotiate on their own behalf.

I made 17 recommendations, 13 of which were designed to improve communication and public service generally and specifically intended to meet the needs of residents with dementia. The remaining four recommendations included an apology to the resident and her son, a reversal of all levies charged for the removal of the tree and replacement the tree.

Fairness is about common sense and it is about good business because it reduces disagreements, engenders public trust and creates confidence in those who have the power to make decisions.

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Keywords: complaints