Ombudsman Barry Fleming offers an objective ear to people’s concerns
The Citizen’s representative, Barry Fleming, was in Labrador West and Goose Bay earlier this month to conduct information and intake sessions.
© Andrea Spracklin
Left to right: Jacob Kimball - Investigator/Intern and Barry Fleming - Citizen Representative. The team was in Labrador recently to conduct information and intake sessions.
Fleming as the province’s ombudsman operates out of a St. John’s Office and has a staff of seven people. Their mandate includes responsibility for all regions Newfoundland and Labrador.
“We take complaints from citizens who have problems with the province’s public service. I think it’s important time to time to get around the province - have a chat with folks o see what their particular issues are and give them an opportunity to meet with me.”
The citizen representative says one of the benefits of visiting different areas of the province is having the opportunity actually to do interviews with local media which he pointed out he wouldn’t otherwise be able to do if he was sitting in the capital city all the time.
“So, about once a year I try and get to the various locations. My office does a lot of work in Goose Bay and when we come that far it’s not a lot of work to tag on a trip to Labrador West and to give people here an opportunity to come and meet me.”
The issues that are brought to their attention and they look into can run the full scope of what the broader public service provides. This includes complaints against a lot of government departments for example the Child/Youth and Family Services or Transportation and Works.
“We also get complaints from things like the school districts, the regional health authorities, Workman’s Compensation, post secondary institutions, College of the North Atlantic and Memorial University. So, we cover a very wide range. Anybody who thinks they’ve been treated unfairly by one of those institutions or departments can come and file a complaint wit me. Our (citizen’s representative) process is free and confidential,” noted Fleming.
The office breaks down their work into two types because many of the citizen’s concerns have to be dealt with really quickly.
“If, for example, you’re a tenant of Newfoundland & Labrador Housing Corporation and your having a problem with your toilet –you really want to have that dealt with (ASAP). If you feel that NL Housing hasn’t been treating you fairly with respect to your request of having that toilet fixed –you can file a complaint to my office. My office needs to respond (in a timely manner) with those types of issues and we do. We call those the inquiries.”
The ombudsman said other types of citizen’s concerns require a much more ‘robust response’ and in those cases they’ll start an investigation. They would interview a citizen, maybe witnesses and or public employees who are involved.
“We’ll take a look at a government file on the issue. We may do research in terms of what takes place in other provinces. In those types of cases we’ll write a report but irrespective of whether it’s an inquiry-a short piece of work- or an investigation, which is broader, we go back to the citizen and say one of two things: (1) You were treated fairly by this government agency and if that’s the case we sit down and explain why we think that’s so.”
Fleming says they take a ‘third party unbiased review’ or an objective ear that people very much appreciate. The office of the Citizen Representative opened in 2002 and he was appointed in 2006 for a six-year term and was re-appointed in 2012 for another term. He is comfortable with the amount of resources the office currently has and likes a variety of aspects with the job.
“I enjoy meeting people and finding ways to help them out. I used to be a Human Rights Lawyer and sometimes you’d go to court and win a case and there would be a ‘big ureka’ moment- there’s none of that in this job - but there are always little victories. We can assist a citizen regarding a better understanding or have more access to government programs and that is a thrill.”
The biggest challenge for Fleming, even after all these years, is talking to citizens who really don’t understand what the office is about.
“We’re not an advocate, I’m called the Citizen’s Representative. Sometimes people come up to me and say ‘ I want you to represent me’ but I’m not that, I am an Ombudsman. It’s my obligation to be unbiased, not take sides and do up an objective review of the citizen’s concern,” he explained.