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Ombuds turf war over bill breaks from political decorum

Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin speaks at a news conference at Queens Park in Toronto on Tuesday February 4, 2014 to announce his latest investigation into complaints about billing practices by Hydro One.

Aaron Vincent Elkaim/THE CANADIAN PRESS

An attempt to expand the powers of Ontario ombudsman André Marin has sparked a bizarre turf war between Mr. Marin and two other high-profile accountability officers. The row even led the outspoken ombudsman to troll the other watchdogs on Twitter – calling one "Chicken Little" – in a break from political decorum.

Bill 8, a package of new accountability measures by Ontario's Liberal government, would give Mr. Marin the right to investigate municipalities, universities and school boards.

That doesn't sit well with Toronto ombudsman Fiona Crean, who told a legislative committee this week her city should be exempted from Mr. Marin's scrutiny because she already has it covered. Provincial Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk told MPPs that Mr. Marin should focus more on investigating individual complaints, while leaving larger systemic issues to auditors.

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Mr. Marin promptly fired back.

"Your apocalyptic, doomsday scenarios are big on fantasy & light on reality. #ChickenLittle," he tweeted at Ms. Crean. Meanwhile, he decried Ms. Lysyk's committee testimony as "astoundingly inept."

Mr. Marin has a reputation for attracting attention. On Twitter, he mixes pointed barbs at government officials with comments on everything from the travails of pop star Justin Bieber to his own health, including a time he informed his more than 20,000 followers he had recently undergone a colonoscopy.

In an interview, Mr. Marin said he has no intention of stepping on Ms. Crean's toes should he receive oversight of municipalities.

Instead, he said, he would leave day-to-day investigations to her while focusing on bigger structural problems.

"We don't want to be chasing potholes and street lights," he said. "We would be looking at systemic issues."

And he defended his choice of words on Twitter.

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"I don't see it as an attack at all; it's advocacy," he said. "She's saying that this [bill] will decimate her office … it's just so over the top that it reminded me of Chicken Little saying that the sky is going to fall."

Mr. Marin said there is no ill will between him and Ms. Crean, but that she once heckled him at a conference for ombudsmen several years ago. He said he was speaking on how the office of ombudsman had changed since he took over when Ms. Crean, who had previously worked in the provincial ombudsman's office, interjected.

"She started heckling about how great the old office was," he said. "She apologized after and it's water under the bridge."

Many of Ms. Crean's concerns may be addressed by the committee. A Liberal amendment to the bill, to be voted on next week, limits Mr. Marin's powers to look into municipal matters. The amendment stipulates he cannot investigate any complaint about a decision by Ms. Crean. Instead, he will have the power only to investigate of his own volition.

Ms. Crean refused to be interviewed.

"I have cooperated many times with the Ontario Ombudsman, as I do with all of my accountability colleagues. This is about Bill 8. It's not about the Ontario Ombudsman," she said in a written statement, in which she also urged the committee to approve the amendment curbing his power.

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Ms. Lysyk said her advice to the committee was to clarify the roles of ombudsman and auditor-general. "[The ombudsman] is a complaints-based focus. When it comes to looking at the operations of something, especially in the area of finances, perhaps in the municipalities a more appropriate role is an auditor-general."

Asked about Mr. Marin's Twitter outburst, she said: "We're all entitled to our own opinions."

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