June 8, 2017 (Welland, ON) - On May 30, 2017, the Ontario Government introduced Bill 139, the Building Better Communities and Conserving Watersheds Act in the provincial legislature. The omnibus bill amends several legislative instruments including the Conservation Authorities Act.
Nearly all the amendments to the Act have already become part of NPCA's Best Management Practices introduced through the implementation of 2014-2017 Strategic Plan.
In 2015, the Province of Ontario initiated a review of the Conservation Authorities Act, which addresses the roles, responsibilities, and governance of Conservation Authorities.
In Spring 2016, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry posted a second discussion paper which identified priorities for moving forward with the Conservation Authorities Act review: Conserving Our Future: Proposed Priorities for Renewal. This was followed-up by multi-stakeholder engagement sessions.
The discussion paper introduced five priorities for updating the Act; strengthening oversight and accountability; increasing clarity and consistency in programs and services; increasing clarity and consistency in regulatory requirements; improving collaboration and engagement; and modernizing funding mechanisms.
Membership and Governance
The Act provides clarity on appointments, term lengths, and member replacement. The process of appointing members to the NPCA Board remains unchanged. Term lengths are amended from three years to four years, and clear language is provided allowing for reappointment of Board Members.
Board meetings are mandated to be open to the public, subject to exceptions in by-laws. NPCA has furthered accessibility by live-streaming Board Meetings since March 2016. The NPCA is the only Conservation Authority of the 36 in Ontario to live-stream its meetings.
Conservation Authorities will be required to establish advisory boards. The NPCA Strategic Plan identified a need for further stakeholder engagement, and the Community Liaison Advisory Committee held its first meeting on November 20, 2014. Currently, only two Conservation Authorities have such committees. Most recently the Board recognized the importance of broadening its sector representation by adding a member of the Métis Nation.
The province has introduced clear language allowing authorities the ability to make by-laws including an accountability and transparency subsection regarding records retention, code of conduct for members, and conflict of interest guidelines. The NPCA implemented a records retention policy in March 2017, the first in the history of the organization. At the last Board meeting, a sub-committee was formed to strengthen the code of conduct. The Act also requires that by-laws are made public, which the NPCA has done.
Objects, Powers, and Duties
The Act recognizes that Conservation Authorities across the Province provide services to municipalities through memorandums of understanding (MOU). MOUs must now be proactively disclosed. The NPCA currently has an MOU with the Niagara Region for interpretation of natural heritage features within the Niagara Region Official Plan. This MOU has matured, and the NPCA is working to renew the terms to include specific language related to the objects and area of jurisdiction for the Conservation Authority.
The Minister will publish a list the classes of programs and services where Conservation Authorities may charge fees. This also requires Conservation Authorities to maintain a fee schedule, policy, and reconsideration mechanism where cost reductions could be considered. The NPCA has published and maintained a fee schedule since 2015 and has partially met this new obligation. A fee policy will need to be formalized under the new legislation.
Apportionments must now be sent to participating municipalities in writing. The NPCA has done this on an annual basis and has engaged our partners further by making budget presentations for Niagara, Hamilton, and Haldimand councils.
Regulations of Areas Which Authorities Have Jurisdiction
The Act prohibits all straightening, changing and diverting of a watercourse, and development in their area of jurisdiction. Regulation making power for authorities is removed, and prohibition is enacted. However, conservation authorities can issue permits to allow prohibited activity. Conservation Authorities can refuse to issue a permit if the activity may jeopardize the health or safety of people or their property, or, activity likely to affect flood control, erosion, dynamic beaches, pollution, or the conservation of land. The act provides further clarity that Conservation Authorities interests and mandate are specific to hydrology, and in-line with the initial intent of Conservation Authorities Act in 1946; to keep people and their property safe from the effects of flooding and erosion.
Conservation Authorities may now issue stop work orders for the straightening, diversion, or interference of a river, stream, creek or watercourse, or for interference with a wetland. The NPCA believes in a process of compliance over conviction. Stop work orders is a tool NPCA has asked the province for to prevent violations or those about to violate the Act, allowing for the opportunity to comply. A person or corporation that has been issued a stop work order by an Authority will have the option to a hearing and may appeal the decision to the Minister.
Maximum fines for violations have increased to $50,000 for individuals, and $1,000,000 for corporations. Daily fines may be issued for non-compliance.
"It is clear that the NPCA's 2014-2017 Strategic Plan has served as the template for the Province’s recent changes in Bill 139. If imitation is the best form of flattery, then we are flattered and delighted. We are pleased to share our successes with the Province, grateful to the Madame Minister and her Ministry, and fully support the direction and changes proposed. The NPCA has been a leader amongst Conservation Authorities across the Province and now with compelling language in the act, it's our hope the rest of the 36 Conservation Authorities in Ontario will follow the lead of the NPCA and implement their own changes as quickly as possible." - Sandy Annunziata, Chair
"The NPCA commends the Province for undertaking a review of the Conservation Authorities Act and for the recommendations it has brought forward to strengthen accountability, increase clarity, and improve collaboration and engagement with stakeholders. The implementation of the 2014-2017 NPCA Strategic Plan positioned the organization very nicely to be fully aligned with the Province’s recommendations. We look forward to working closely with all stakeholders to ensure the sound stewardship of our magnificent Niagara Peninsula watershed." - Mark Brickell, Acting CAO