Toronto's ombudsman is questioning why the city's cash-strapped housing agency is hiring its own consultant to duplicate an investigation now under way by her office.
Fiona Crean, who last week confirmed reports that her office is looking into complaints about the hiring and promotion practices of Toronto Community Housing Corporation, says a parallel investigation has the potential to jeopardize the work of her staff and undermines the authority of her office.
"From my perspective this is unprecedented, Ms. Crean said. "I don't want this to become some form of precedent - in comes the ombudsman, quick let's hire our own people."
The housing agency's chair, Bud Purves, does not see it the same way. He said TCHC's work on the consultation predates the ombudsman's investigation and described it as "good business practice."
At issue is a human resources consulting contract that is in the process of being awarded by the housing agency. Responding to reports of the ombudsman's investigation, TCHC head Gene Jones last week revealed that he, too, was investigating HR issues raised by staff since he came in more than a year ago to clean up the troubled agency.
"We are going to investigate," he told reporters. "[The] Ombudsman's come in. We are going to do our own third-party investigation and we are going to go from there. We are either going to prove her right or prove her wrong."
"That is an extraordinary statement," said Ms. Crean, who contacted Mr. Jones and Mr. Purves after reading a report in The Globe and Mail. "The idea that you would hire somebody to prove or disprove an ombudsman is extraordinary."
Ms. Crean is scheduled to meet with Mr. Jones Thursday to discuss the issue.
Mr. Purves said the housing agency is searching for a consultant who can benchmark the agency against industry standards.
"I don't see them in conflict at all," he said of the work of the ombudsman and the consultants.
"[The ombudsman] has a job and the company has a job to manage its HR practices. If they are not doing a good job in some area that falls within the ombudsman's purview, tell us about it. I believe we need to come together on this."
The decision to bring in consultants was made in early August, said a spokeswoman for the agency in a written response to questions. Terms of reference for the review were finalized on August 22, it said – five days before notice was given by the Ombudsman of her investigation.
A process has started to get bids from HR management consulting firms to assess " policies, procedures and processes in order to benchmark them against industry best practices and make recommendations for improvement," but the contract has not been awarded, the statement said.
Councillor Maria Augimeri, a TCHC board member, said she had no idea the agency was hiring consultants until she read it in the paper. "This happened without any board control or knowledge," she said. "This is unprofessional and highly inappropriate. It undermines the office of the ombudsman. It doesn't look like TCH is playing ball, and if it's not, we have to ask some serious questions."
Ms. Augimeri also questioned the use of public funds to hire consultants. "We are paying an ombudsman and an ombudsman's office to carry out this investigation, why do we have to pay someone to shadow that investigation?" she asked.
Mr. Purves defended the contract. "Good management says you peer review your business practices. One of your business practices is HR," he said.