Petrolia CAO owns youth centre building

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Thera Wagner and Mayor John McCharles at the opening of The Rec Room in April. Pam Wright Photo

Baron says he didn’t disclose ownership to council because he’s giving centre free rent

Heather Wright
The Independent ©

Petrolia’s chief administrative officer owns the building which houses a town run youth and seniors centre called  The Rec Room – a fact not disclosed to council when the project was approved.
On March 13, 2017, Dave Menzies, director of facilities and community services, came to council for support for a youth and seniors drop in centre. “In discussions with programing staff at the OHDCC over the last year, one of the goals for continuous improvement was to develop and implement a youth drop in centre,” wrote Menzies. The centre was to be located at “4168 Robert Street (rear, vacant LCDS offices)” according to the report. The owner of the building was not disclosed nor did councillors at the time ask who owned the property.
A budget attached to the report said it would cost $38,000 to run the centre. The biggest cost was wages at $16,400 per year. The report says one year of rent was to be $9,600. The budget also included $1,800 for utilities.
Town councillors agreed to set aside $11,000 for the project. The budget projected service clubs would pay $5,000, and when the building opened, the town recognized the Fiddick family as the major sponsor, contributing $10,000 to the project.What councillors didn’t see in the report that was co-signed by the CAO was Baron had already signed an agreement with Countryside Realty, owned by developer Horst Richter. The agreement for the building is dated March 2, 11 days before the proposal went to council according to documents filed with the Land Registry Office in Ontario.
Baron paid $150,000 for the building. There were minor renovations done to the centre including painting before it was opened. Town staff have also been seen on the site cutting the grass at the building.
The Independent tried to contact seven of the eight town councillors about the issue including Mayor John McCharles.
Only Councillors Grant Purdy and Ross O’Hara were available for interviews.
Both Purdy and O’Hara said they were not made aware of who owned the building before council accepted the proposal.
“I do recall wondering why that place, we have all kinds of town space,” says Purdy.
At the time, Purdy was told there was no space available in the community centre for the drop in centre.
O’Hara told The Independent he didn’t think he had been told who owned the property prior to council giving the okay adding “it’s hard to remember that far back.”
He said it was his impression at the time that a service club or a third party was paying the rent.
O’Hara planned to meet with Baron to talk about the issue – he had heard a complaint from a resident about the CAO owning the property now used by the town. The councillor hoped to speak to the CAO prior to Tuesday night’s council meeting.
O’Hara did not want to comment further until he’d talked to the CAO.
But Purdy says he would not have approved the contract had he know Baron owned it. “Had I know that, I would have said something. That’s a conflict of interest. Had I had known, I wouldn’t have voted for it.”
For his part, Baron says he didn’t disclose his ownership of the building because “no rent was being charged… I’m not charging rent, Town of Petrolia is getting free rent out of that.”
But a well-known analyst of municipal politics, Professor Andrew Sancton of Western University, says even if Baron is donating the rent to the town, he should have disclosed his ownership in the building. “If he’s not making any money out of it and he’s actually making a form of contribution …it would have been better to be totally open,” Sancton told The Independent.
“He should have disclosed it. The real conflict issue is if he has benefited financially…If he is contributing rent, you would think he would be looking for a tax receipt,” he added.
Sancton also wondered who had signed a lease agreement since that is generally left to the upper levels of management in a municipality.
It’s a question Purdy also raised.
“We don’t know who signed the lease agreement,” he says. “We have been told the day-to-day operations is the responsibility of the senior staff.
“I think I want to start seeing things like that now.”
Purdy is also questioning why the centre came up so suddenly to council.
The councillor had suggested the town engage teens with a youth council in the past but that didn’t come to pass.
There have also been calls in the past four years for a skateboard park and a splash pad in the community.
“It upsets me to think that I’ve been pushing for things for our youth…it doesn’t benefit me personally because my kids are too old for them…but…there is no money to fund these things,” he says.
When The Rec Room opened in April 12 youth had signed up for memberships at a cost of $30 each.  Today it has 15. “Understanding that this is the beginning of a long-term program, we are very encouraged by the numbers at this time,” wrote Marketing Director Laurissa Ellsworth in an email.

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