A local health agency set up by the Liberal government held “illegal, secret meetings” to discuss restructuring hospital services in Hamilton and Niagara, including the closure of two emergency rooms, Ombudsman Andre Marin reported yesterday.

But the Hamilton-Niagara-Haldimand-Brant Local Health Integration Network met its lawful requirement to consult the community on the proposed hospital changes by talking with people on the golf course or in line at the grocery store, reported Marin.

“Our investigation revealed that despite the strong language in the legislation, the reality of 'community engagement' is that it's a wishy-washy grey zone - and this particular LHIN took advantage of that to render it almost meaningless,” Marin said at a press conference.

“They used these secret meetings - seven for the Niagara plan, four for the Hamilton one - to discuss the restructuring plans with the key players away from public view.”

All the LHINs opened themselves up to legal challenges of their decisions - including the move to shut the emergency rooms in Fort Erie and Port Colborne - by “being sneaky,” meeting in secret and not properly documenting the discussions, said Marin.