Martin: Middlesex County-health unit spat draws unwelcome attention amid overhaul

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What a bad time for a bun fight.

Just as the local public agency in charge of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic is run off its feet, it’s been distracted by a controversy of its own making.

The Middlesex-London Health Unit and the County of Middlesex, one of its funders and, until recently, its landlord, are locked in a dispute that has nothing to do with public health. The county contacted Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner for advice on how part of the standoff should be resolved.

When it moved to Citi Plaza, the health unit left a mess at its old quarters at 50 King Street, leased from the county at $92,000 a month. It was a big move for the agency, which has a $35 million annual budget and employs about 300.

The move was “completed” at the end of March. A few days later, a previously announced $30 million purchase by York Developments of 50 King and adjacent 399 Ridout Street, was expected to close. A high-rise development is slated for the site, after 50 King is demolished and the historic courthouse somehow incorporated. The latter houses the county offices. The closing date has been extended to June 1.


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(L to R): Middlesex County CAO Bill Rayburn, York Developments chairman Mike Meddaoui, York Developments president Ali Soufan and Middlesex County Warden Kurtis Smith announced that the County has a conditional agreement to sell its marquee downtown London properties at 50 King St. and 399 Ridout St. to York Developments. Photo taken Nov. 27, 2019. (Derek Ruttan/The London Free Press)

After the health unit vacated, county officials discovered 50 King was filled with desks, tables and portable walls and garbage, including old syringes, medical supplies, laptop computers, monitors, baby scales, whiteboards and microphones.

Also abandoned were 72 desktop computers and 42 backup tapes containing personal information. Concerned, the county contacted Ontario’s privacy commissioner explaining the find and seeking direction. In a letter dated April 23 it said “many of the hard drives contained health unit related information and potential personal health information of individuals.”

County administrator Bill Rayburn says Middlesex found itself in a “tough spot” with a potential breach of privacy and vowed initially not to return the material to the health until until ordered to do so by the privacy commissioner. But in the last few days it relented and handed it over.

Rayburn estimates the cleanup will cost tens of thousands of dollars and the county intends to bill the health unit for it. Middlesex contributes about $1.3 million annually to the agency.

“I didn’t know they were racing through the move,” he says of the health unit, which began leaving in December. He insists both the county and York Developments were willing to let the agency remain longer at no charge, to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic emergency Ontario declared on March 17.

“I didn’t care if they left furniture behind,” Rayburn says. “We didn’t want them to leave their garbage there.”


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Middlesex County chief administrator Bill Rayburn show several photos of furniture and equipment the Middlesex-London Health Unit left behind when it moved from a building at 50 King St. owned by the county during an online meeting Tuesday of Middlesex County councillors. County officials contend instead of repurposing furniture, the health unit bought new furniture for its new location at Citi Plaza.

At the health board’s April 16 meeting, medical officer of health Chris Mackie fielded questions about the controversial move for 90 minutes of the two-hour session, leaving little time for pandemic discussion. Board member Ian Peer asked Mackie whether he sought an extension at 50 King St., given the extenuating circumstances. Mackie replied that would have been exceedingly costly, possibly $200,000. Besides, he said, it wasn’t necessary.

Laura DiCesare, director of corporate services, conceded the move had been “expedited” out of fear movers might quit working if they were declared non-essential. Neither she nor Mackie conducted a final walk-through of the building before turning it back to the county.

Mackie bragged he saved $500,000 on the move, telling board members the material was “left behind with the permission of the landlord.”

“I accept full responsibility for everything that happened,” Mackie says today. He wasn’t expecting a bill from the county to clean up the mess. “We have different perspectives on how we left.”

After hearing Mackie and DiCesare, board chair and city councillor Maureen Cassidy pronounced: “I’m satisfied staff did an incredible job.” Hmmm.

County Warden Cathy Burghardt-Jesson remains unhappy with the former tenant, conceding, “Perhaps the relationship is a little bit rocky.”

We’ll no doubt hear more about this tempest in a teapot that could have been avoided with due diligence.

Meanwhile, Ontario Premier Doug Ford has resurrected his call to eliminate most of the province’s 34 health units to cut costs and improve service delivery. What a time for London’s to clash publicly with one of its funders and sign a big new lease.

Bun fights attract attention.

Chip Martin is a retired London Free Press reporter and author of books on crime and baseball.