Councillors ‘disappointed’ as ERCA rejects request for auditor review

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Windsor Ward 6 Coun. Jo-Anne Gignac said it’s “very odd” that the Essex Region Conservation Authority — on the heels of losing $292,000 in a phishing ripoff — has rejected the city’s request to send in its auditor general.

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The request came several months ago at the urging of Gignac and Ward 1 Coun. Fred Francis, who have expressed frustration over what they claim has been insufficient explanation on the part of ERCA following the discovery of the missing money last summer.

Windsor contributes more than half of the $3.4 million ERCA receives annually from eight local municipalities.

“I think you know I have strong feelings about the fact we send a substantial amount to ERCA every year,” Gignac told the Star Friday. She said the loss of nearly $300,000 is a big deal, to her and residents who’ve contacted her.

“It’s foolhardy to think that people have just forgotten about this and I don’t know why (ERCA) would object to having an auditor general review,” she said.

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The motion from Gignac and seconded by Francis requests that the ERCA board — as well as any other boards that Windsor helps fund but which do not already fall under the scope of its auditor general — “consider allowing the auditor general to undertake a review of its finances and to report back directly to city council on the findings of such reviews.”

The ERCA board, which includes four city councillors, voted unanimously on June 17 to deny the City of Windsor request in a motion made by vice-chairman and Windsor Ward 9 Coun. Kieran McKenzie. When Windsor council debated the hotly contested issue of hiring an auditor general to have oversight over the city’s finances in 2019, McKenzie supported the idea.

“But to suggest (the AG) should have oversight over a regional body (like ERCA), to me, is a bridge too far,” he said. The ERCA board dealt with a very similar request from Windsor in 2013, he said, and sought legal advice which recommended against it.

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“It’s not appropriate for the City of Windsor to have its auditor general to have authority like that over a regional body, in my opinion, and in the unanimous opinion of the conservation authority board,” said McKenzie. ERCA, he said, has set a high bar when it comes to transparency, including its willingness to share all it can on the phishing scam, which he prefers to call a “social engineering incident.”

“There was a nearly immediate disclosure of what had occurred, once it became known to the board. There was follow-up disclosure with some of the steps that were taken and that disclosure continued to be ongoing and public.”

ERCA’s leadership appeared before city council in March — both in public and in camera — to explain the scam, which involved hackers infiltrating ERCA’s computers in February or March of 2020, spending months learning how the organization functioned and people interacted before orchestrating the ripoff.

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The money was transferred out in two payments — for $61,876 processed on July 14, and the second for about $230,865 processed on July 27. The scam was discovered on Aug. 27, followed by the departure of longtime general manager Richard Wyma. Tim Byrne, the current CAO, was appointed interim general manager eight days after the Aug. 27 discovery.

“There was a loss of funds. As a funder, that’s concerning,” said Francis. “A few weeks later you saw the head of the agency resign. That caused me to say maybe there are more questions here than I’m getting answers to.”

Francis said he still hasn’t had all his questions answered on the scam.

“At least it’s the next way to satisfy any questions you have and receive the answers to ensure that there are no problems, everything’s resolved and something like this couldn’t happen again,” he said.

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The request didn’t just go to ERCA but has since been forwarded to all the agencies that receive city funds. City deputy clerk Steve Vlachodimos said in
an email Friday that, while ERCA was sent the request in April, similar letters were sent out in early June to the Windsor Public Library Board, the Huron Lodge Committee of Management, Windsor Police Services Board, the Windsor Essex County Health Unit board and the city’s committee of adjustment. The city is awaiting their responses.

“I think that was a reasonable request,” Francis said. “If it’s good enough for the city, it should be good enough for all the agencies, boards and committees that the city funds.”

Both Gignac and Francis said they were surprised that the Windsor councillors on the ERCA board didn’t support the request, given the strong arguments made for an auditor general in recent years. It took about 11 years of acrimonious debate before council decided in 2019 to approve the appointment of an AG from its outside auditing firm. An AG has the legislative guarantee of unfettered access to municipal records.

bcross@postmedia.com

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