In April of 2019, the Sault Star’s Elaine Della-Mattia penned an amusing column detailing the difficulty she experienced while trying to connect with Sault Ste. Marie MPP Ross Romano. Romano had been on the job for two years by then, so avoiding the media seemed pretty gauche.
Irrespective of how you feel about the contemporary state of journalism, its critical and trained eye is an important accountability mechanism and essential for democracy. Media engagement is, therefore, what you might call an occupational hazard for politicians.
They live in constant fear that embarrassing or inconvenient reporting might jeopardize their credibility, esteem, and more importantly, their electoral fortunes. However, avoiding the media is always a bad look, even if you’ve already learned the painful lesson that journalists will only happily report the stupid things that you say in public.
More recently, a veteran journalist in the city informed me that Della-Mattia’s experience is far from isolated. That veteran had been ghosted several times by Romano, revealing a long-running penchant for avoiding the media.
When I started to ask questions around the city, Romano’s lack of media engagement started to seem more and more like a general pattern, not simply an allergy to some local journalists.
Say what you want about Romano’s predecessors – Tony Martin and David Orazietti –they were both immersed in our community to a significant degree. They responded to their constituents’ concerns in a timely, tactful, and professional manner. They kept the community apprised of important developments and commented on the key issues as they emerged. You could have a reasonable disagreement about the politics and policies of Martin and Orazietti, of course, but you would never get the sense that they were potentially ambivalent about actually representing and responding to the community that elected them.
By contrast, I’ve heard countless complaints about Romano’s office not responding to his constituents and local organizations, some of which are doing life-saving work (like CHAAT), struggling to get his attention. Of course, he never misses a photo-op or a funding announcement, but openness to just listening to people, the hallmark of any good leader, appears completely antithetical to Romano’s style.
Over time, a particular impression of Romano – casually disinterested – has essentially become a running joke around town.
I think we ought to ask why this is the case, since a provincial election is looming and voters deserve to have all of the information required to make informed decisions at the ballot box.
Romano’s political career really took off for a relative rookie.
After serving just one term on Sault Ste. Marie’s City Council, he won a provincial by-election in 2017 following the resignation of MPP David Orazietti. It was the first time that a provincial Progressive Conservative won here since 1981, certainly an impressive feat.
The following year, he narrowly defeated Michelle McCleave-Kennedy of the NDP in what many considered a toss up due to the immense unpopularity of then Premier Kathleen Wynne and the Ontario Liberal Party.
Similar to other prospective Progressive Conservative MPPs, Romano appeared to keep a safe distance between himself and our present Premier, Doug Ford, during the 2018 campaign. Romano endorsed Patrick Brown (then mired in accusations of sexual impropriety) in his failed attempt to regain leadership of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives and Brown’s girlfriend (now wife) worked on Romano’s by-election campaign (a move that garnered some controversy).
Once Brown’s campaign went down in flames, it would be relatively easy to ride the wave of Wynne’s unpopularity into office, but Ford’s quasi-populist shooting from the hip wasn’t exactly appetizing, either. Nonetheless, Romano was appointed to the Ford Nation cabinet as the Minister of Colleges and Universities after just one year, a partial reflection of the limited pool of Northern Ontario Progressive Conservative MPPs from which to choose for adequate regional representation.
In sum, Romano managed to establish a pretty impressive political career within Ford Nation and in a short amount of time, too.
It’s all the more impressive if you consider that Romano might not be the most ardent conservative you’ll ever meet. In the 2015 federal election, he personally donated to both Conservative candidate Bryan Hayes and Liberal candidate Terry Sheehan (who won and remains our MP). I think that might be called an insurance policy if you’re someone with political ambitions but not much political conviction.
Recently, Romano’s career seems to have hit a speed bump with – let’s be honest – a serious demotion, from Minister of Colleges and Universities to Minister of Government and Consumer Services.
Ford’s cabinet shuffle was obviously a moment of celebration for those who’ve been paying attention to the ongoing debacle at Laurentian University. If you’re from Northern Ontario and you’re privy to the imminent implosion of a pillar of higher education here, wouldn’t you want to do everything in your power to find a solution that doesn’t result in lost jobs, lost programs, and lost students?
It’s easy to point to the utter financial mismanagement at play in Laurentian’s own governance, but there are and were solutions to the crisis that would have avoided the hollow shell of a (northern) university with which we’re left. Worse of all, he was in the loop months before insolvency was declared.
In the end, Romano simply didn’t do his job, or at least well enough to keep that portfolio with a straight face. Laurentian is now ranked dead last in the ‘reputation’ category of Maclean’s annual university rankings.
While Romano’s star was rising, so to speak, a ‘feel good’ story hit the local headlines, one with a strong political connection. In May of 2019, it was widely reported that Romano’s wife, Heather-Ann Mendes, was appointed a judge in Sudbury.
Becoming a judge is obviously an incredible accomplishment and worthy of celebration, but it seemed odd to me at the time that local journalists weren’t curious enough to ask Romano how he would continue to adequately represent his constituents in Sault Ste. Marie if his family relocated to another city.
Is it possible that Romano’s seeming detachment from the community is a reflection of a lack of physical proximity and not just his political style?
Asked whether or not Romano has ever had a primary residence outside of Sault Ste. Marie, his office responded in the negative, adding: “MPP Romano is proud to call Sault Ste. Marie home, as he has since returning home from law school in 2004. Since that time, he and his family have resided in downtown Sault Ste. Marie, until only just recently, when he and his family moved to the west end of the city.”
That statement is less than truthful, let’s say.
Property and sales records show that their home in downtown Sault Ste. Marie was listed for sale in August of 2020 and a deal was closed less than two months later. The records also show that a new home in Sudbury was purchased by them almost a year earlier, in December of 2019. The house in Sudbury has been sold again recently (last July) and Mendes is now back on the docket in Sault Ste. Marie, which is great.
So, the claim that Romano’s family has called downtown Sault Ste. Marie home since very recently – when they started building a new house close to the airport this spring – is just not the entire story and a tad deceptive.
It’s important to note, however, that according to the rules of Legislative Assembly of Ontario, it’s actually permissible for an MPP to live primarily at a residence outside of the electoral district in which they were elected. We don’t make the rules - they do.
The primary question, then, is whether or not residing outside of one’s electoral district (even temporarily) is acceptable to an elected representative’s constituents and, further, whether or not being less than truthful about such a thing might be indicative of poor judgment.
Keep in mind that an Ontario mayor, Brockville’s Jason Baker, recently resigned because he purchased a home outside of that city’s limits. And let’s not forget about the expense scandals associated with the Canadian Senate from the previous decade.
In general, MPPs are granted some pretty nice perks at the expense of taxpayers. For example, they can sometimes claim travel expenses when they fly with their spouses and children, something that Romano took advantage of pretty early on in his career.
Ontario’s Office of the Integrity Commissioner would like us to think that it’s a stalwart oversight body keeping our elected representatives accountable, but the reality is that it’s mandate and scope are limited.
It’ll always be remarkable to me that elected officials can claim expenses for things like lunches, parking, and taxis when they travel – Romano included – when they already have the privileges of generous salaries from the public (Romano netted $165,000 in 2020, but he is by no means the worst offender here).
The Legislative Assembly of Ontario tells me that MPPs are able to claim travel expenses to and from their ‘residence’ (broadly defined) and Queen’s Park (in Toronto).
Romano’s office was keen to emphasize the fact that his expense claims have met all of the associated requirements set out by applicable legislation and policy, which seems right. But Romano has claimed expenses for travel to and from Sudbury and Queen’s Park on several occasions.
Wouldn’t that mean that he technically resides in Sudbury? Claiming those travel expenses would be fair, of course, but only if Sudbury is the location of Romano’s residence.
There’s also another, broader question here: why should taxpayers, including the constituents that Romano represents, subsidize his travel to and from a destination other than his own electoral district, either as an MPP or a Cabinet Minister?
You can’t have it both ways. Either your residence is in Sudbury and you claim those travel expenses legitimately or you live in Sault Ste. Marie and you don’t claim travel expenses to subsidize your living elsewhere (even if temporary).
One ought to be able to spend time with their family, especially during a pandemic. It’s pretty clear that political life typically wreaks havoc on family life. The former requires sacrifices and trade-offs that most wouldn’t want to bear, myself included. Nonetheless, constituents ought to know whether or not their elected representatives actually live in the city that they’re constantly raving about.
Given the fact that Romano has, by all accounts, spent considerable time outside of Sault Ste. Marie in the last few years, his recently touted efforts to prevent youth from leaving the community for better prospects are a bit superficial.
It’s great that he came back, of course, because our community faces numerous problems that require a strong advocate in Queen’s Park.
But when opportunity knocks, Romano answers the door, just like everybody else.