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Top executive leaves Niagara Parks Commission

A top executive at the Niagara Parks Commission has left the Ontario government agency amid questions about an untendered contract he signed that paid $500,000 in public funds to a magazine publisher last summer.

Joel Noden, who earned $130,144 a year as the agency's executive director of revenue operations, marketing and business development, "is no longer an employee of the Commission" and "is pursuing opportunities in the private sector," according to an e-mail sent to staff Tuesday.

Mr. Noden's departure comes after four consecutive years of unprecedented financial losses at the 125-year-old agency, which generates its own funds to maintain public parkland at and around Niagara Falls, Canada's busiest tourist attraction.

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The commission, which employs more than 300 people and is overseen by a politically appointed board, has faced heightened scrutiny since it granted an untendered 25-year lease to the Maid of the Mist boat tour operation in 2008. Complaints led the Ontario government to reverse the decision and order a tendering process now under way.

The controversy also led to the appointment of a new commission chairwoman this year, Fay Booker, a governance and auditing expert who has pledged to tighten business practices and increase transparency at the Crown agency. Ms. Booker confirmed Mr. Noden has left the commission, but declined to say whether he resigned or was dismissed.

On Oct. 31, a deadline passed for the commission to release Mr. Noden's expense records to The Globe and Mail under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

As word of Mr. Noden's departure surfaced, The Globe was investigating a sole-source publishing contract he signed with Rev Publishing of Niagara Falls, Ont., for production and distribution of a 100-page glossy magazine meant to lure tourists to the Niagara area from around Southern Ontario.

The magazine, which carried the same title and corporate masthead as Rev's bi-monthly magazine, Niagara Today, bore no sign it was a government-funded initiative. It was commissioned by a new Niagara-based tourism marketing group, one of 13 new Regional Tourism Organizations initiated by the Ontario government last spring.

Mr. Noden was co-chairman of the new group and the parks commission was given authority to administer the $3-million in annual transfers it receives from the province for promotional projects.

In an interview last week, Mr. Noden said there wasn't time to seek other bids for the magazine in the narrow window between funding becoming available in late spring and the start of the summer holiday season. Provincial rules require competitive quotes for contracts over $5,000 and public tendering of those over $25,000.

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"We vetted everything through the Ministry [of Tourism]and they were okay with it," Mr. Noden said. "The main thing was just timing … I think we got fair value for our money."

A spokesman for Tourism Minister Michael Chan said the project met an "exception" to the rules whereby sole-source contracts can be granted "where there is a need for specialized services." In this case, "the ministry was informed that [Rev Publishing]was the sole Niagara publisher that maintains street boxes in GO stations, which were seen as a key distribution point," Mukunthan Paramalingham said.

Tender or not, Gary MacGregor of Rev Publishing said the company was best-placed to do the job on short notice. It had pitched a similar magazine to another local tourism body last year, months before the new regional tourism board was announced, thus giving Rev a substantial head-start, he said.

But Ms. Booker, who joined the parks commission in late spring and was not aware of its link to the Regional Tourism Organization until after the contract was carried out, wondered how value could be determined without a competitive process.

"You may not have the time to do a full tender, but that does not deny the fact that you could get quotes," Ms. Booker said. "This is taxpayer money. Practices should honour that broader accountability."

Accountability at public agencies has been a thorny issue for the government, which was stung by spending and contracting scandals at eHealth and Ontario Lottery and Gaming in 2009, shortly after objections arose around the Maid of the Mist lease. The government ordered a review of procedures at its agencies, starting at the Niagara Parks Commission, where audits of governance and procurement practices found problems with opaque decision-making, perceived conflicts of interest and an image as an "old boys club."

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A Globe investigation subsequently found that Archie Katzman, a continuous parks commission appointee since 1971, had personal connections to people who did business with the parks. Mr. Katzman, 80, has since stepped down as commission vice-chairman and has said he will leave the board next year.

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