Heading into an election year, Government and Consumer Services Minister Ross Romano has his back up over locals’ impression that he and his family did not live in his home riding of Sault Ste. Marie for the better part of two years.

The accusations also raise questions over whether the MPP improperly expensed travel to Queen’s Park from an area other than his residence.

In a 20-minute video interview with SaultOnline posted last week, host Dan Gray told Romano the number one question the local news station gets from viewers is “what’s happened and where are you?”

In May 2019, Romano’s wife, Heather-Ann Mendes, was appointed to the Ontario Court of Justice and assigned to Sudbury, 300 kilometres east of Sault Ste. Marie. The family bought a home in Sudbury the following month for Mendes to live in while she was on the bench; their three kids also enrolled in school in that city.

But Romano contends he was still spending weekends in his home riding.

“I’ve always maintained an address in Sault Ste. Marie,” Romano told Sault Online. He went on to provide intricate details about the family’s dining and travel schedule. His wife and kids would drive to meet him in the Sault on Fridays after he caught Thursday night flights back from Queen’s Park, Romano explained. The weekends always included meals at “Tim Hortons on Bay Street” and the food court in the Station Mall.

Romano says the pack would all drive to Sudbury on Sunday afternoons so he could fly back to Toronto from that city, which offered a later flight option than the Sault, and spend time with his kids during the three-a-half-hour car ride.

Questions about Romano’s whereabouts were recently raised by local researcher Dax D’Orazio.

There is no rule against MPPs living outside their ridings. However, the Legislative Assembly Act dictates that members can only expense “travels on business … between the member’s residence and the seat of government at Toronto.”

Numerous expenses filed by Romano in 2019 listed “travel between Queen’s Park & Residence.”

In response to questions from Queen’s Park Today, a spokesperson in Romano’s office said, “​​Minister Romano is proud to represent the great community of Sault Ste. Marie, where he was born, raised, and lives with his family.”

His office declined to answer questions related to the discrepancy between Romano’s travel expenses for flights between Sudbury and Toronto and his insistence he has resided in Sault Ste. Marie since 2004. His spokesperson would not clarify whether he received assurances his travel expenses complied with the rules.

The Office of the Integrity Commissioner declined to comment, saying it “does not review expenses incurred by any member in their capacity as an MPP.”

In response to questions from Queen’s Park Today, a spokesperson in MPP Ross Romano’s office said, “​​Minister Romano is proud to represent the great community of Sault Ste. Marie, where he was born, raised, and lives with his family.” (Photo credit: SaultOnline)

Romano poised for a fight to regain the Sault

Sault Ste. Marie is not considered a safe seat for the Tories. Before Romano won it in a 2017 byelection, it had been held by a Liberal or New Democrat for more than 30 years. He beat his NDP challenger Michele McCleave-Kennedy by just 400 votes in 2018.

The New Democrats have re-tapped McCleave-Kennedy, who is a special needs teacher with leadership roles in three labour unions, to run again next June. Leader Andrea Horwath toured the riding — which the NDP hopes to flip — in October, raising concerns about health-care worker shortages, among other things.

Earlier this year, Romano was demoted from his post-secondary cabinet post following the blowup surrounding Laurentian University’s insolvency filing and subsequent job and program losses. He landed in the lower-profile government and consumer services portfolio.

The SaultOnline news host implied there is a deep-rooted impression on the ground that Romano has been MIA from his riding.

“He’s just here for a photoshoot. He doesn’t live here. He lives in Sudbury,” Gray says a police officer told him the week prior when Romano was in town for a government announcement at Algoma Steel.

Romano chalked that up to Covid lockdowns.

“I think there may have only been five to seven days [since Covid hit in March 2020] that I have not been in Sault Ste. Marie,” said the minister, while recalling the up to 13-hour cabinet meetings he participated in from his home office.

In June, Justice Mendes was transferred to the Ontario Court of Justice in Sault Ste. Marie after two years in Sudbury. Romano says the family plans to stay there indefinitely.