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City ombudsman's request for more staff turned down Add to ...

Toronto's budget committee has rejected its ombudsman's request for more staff - a move she says will prevent her from doing her job and calls into question the city's commitment to funding and supporting an independent watchdog.

Fiona Crean, who became the city's first ombudsman in 2009, said her 10-person office will suffer if it doesn't get the extra two staffers she'd requested - one investigator and one front-line worker.

"I'm extremely disappointed," she said. "If this rejection is endorsed by full council, it really calls into question the city's commitment to equitable treatment of all its citizens. The second thing I think it really will call into question is the city's commitment to having an independent ombudsman."

And, she added, if the committee vote passes at council, it will throw into doubt Mayor Rob Ford's commitment to customer service above all. The former Etobicoke councillor, who has boasted of returning hundreds of constituent calls a day in his decade in office, has often cited his father's maxim of "the customer is always right" as a rule he'd like to see applied more at City Hall. Ms. Crean welcomed that new focus on serving residents - but she said it should involve better resources for arms-length entities that investigate complaints.

"I believe that my office actually supports the mayor's priorities around customer service. More importantly, we are able to do independent investigations to get at systemic fixes that actually will save thousands of dollars for the administration and not have these repeat complaints," she said. "So it is extremely disappointing to see that the budget committee made the decision they made."

Several councillors, including Peter Milczyn, who put forward the motion that passed at committee by a show of hands on Monday, said beefing up the ombudsman's office is unnecessary because the city plans to improve its customer service record anyway.

"We're trying to have a status-quo budget. This was one of the few areas where staff recommended requests to increase staff. Basically, this is not the year to do it," Mr. Milczyn said, adding that the city will look at increasing staff in the ombudsman's office next year.

"There's going to be a huge focus on customer service improvements. And by definition, the ombudsman is there to serve people when we fail at customer service. … It's a new office, she's doing a fabulous job. My motion was not to say she's wrong, it's just to say, 'Not yet.'"

Mr. Ford's spokeswoman Adrienne Batra said the mayor is "supportive" of the budget committee's work.

"The mayor is absolutely dedicated to customer service. … In fact, because the mayor is working with city staff trying to implement rigorous customer service excellence at City Hall, one hopes that it will take some of the burden off the ombudsman's office."

The city's 2011 budget is supposed to be stringent, in line with Mr. Ford's promise to cut the waste and stop City Hall's "gravy train."

But his critics have pointed out that budget staff have been able to make ends meet this year thanks almost entirely to surplus funds from previous years. In fact, far from cutting staff overall in keeping with his pledge to save more than $1-billion over four years through attrition, Mr. Ford's 2011 budget would increase the number of city staff.

Ms. Crean said there will be a demonstrable and "dramatic" impact to the service Torontonians get when trying to have complaints investigated - especially to areas outside the downtown, which she said are now under-serviced.

"I will have some very difficult decisions to make. I may stop doing individual complaints and only do some systemic work," she said.

"Something has to give if I don't receive that."

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