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Skating on Thin Ice: Toronto to debate management of local hockey rinks

Cailtin Rother, 7, works on her hockey skills on a rink in Toronto’s east end on Sunday, February 10, 2013.

Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

Toronto City Council is set to debate the management of local hockey rinks this week after an ombudsman's report was released recommending more oversight of local arena boards.

The city currently operates 40 arenas with 48 ice pads. Boards of management control another eight that are city-owned. Toronto Ombudsman Fiona Crean began investigating arena boards after receiving a complaint from a local resident who advertised his business on the side of a Zamboni at Leaside Memorial Community Gardens Arena in East York.

The advertiser paid $1,800 per year for the last 10 years, but in December 2011, was asked by the arena board to match a competing offer from a grocer of $125,000 for 10 years – $75,000 of which was a donation and $50,000 for advertising.

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Despite being out of the country for Christmas, the complainant scrambled to make an offer, which fell below $125,000 and was rejected by the board. Later, he discovered the competing offer was not firm, prompting him to lodge a complaint with the city.

The complainant, whose identity the city has concealed, told investigators he believes he was treated unfairly.

"They didn't have an offer and they tried to get me to give them a fictitious figure they pulled out of the air," he said in the report, titled Skating on Thin Ice. "That's totally unethical."

According to Ms. Crean's 18 recommendations in the report, the city must clarify the role of these boards and examine models for their governance.

"They need to understand they are dealing with public assets and they need to be more transparent," she said in an interview.

Ms. Crean criticized the board for not clarifying that the offer was made up of a donation and an advertising fee when dealing with the complainant. She also noted that the complainant was only given a week to respond to the other offer despite the board being in discussions with the prospective advertiser for four months.

According to Councillor John Parker, who sits on the Leaside board, incidents like this rarely occur.

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"This is one case where things were handled outside of course," he says. "We've learned a lesson from the experience."

Though city manager Joe Pennachetti wrote to Ms. Crean concurring with her recommendations and vowing to help implement them, council must still address the issue this week.

"I expect that it will be held and adopted, but I can't tell given what's on the agenda," said Ms. Crean.

In the report, she said if council "wishes to have greater monitoring and supervision of boards and agencies, then more resources would be required."

But she is "not persuaded that this is the heart of the problem." Instead she said, "there is a pressing need for education" about the rights and obligations of arena boards.

According to Leaside arena board chair Raymond White, the board has since apologized to the complainant and has plans to carry out each of Ms. Crean's recommendations.

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"We are going to move forward," Mr. White said.

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