October 08, 2014

Commissioner dismisses 17 Code complaints

As published in The Erin Advocate

A total of 17 complaints against Town councillors under the Code of Ethics, made by Mayor Lou Maieron and two residents, have been thrown out by Integrity Commissioner Robert Williams.

All of the allegations were unsupported, he said, ruling that two of the mayor’s complaints were “vexatious – intended solely to cause trouble for someone or to annoy that person without having a legitimate claim requiring resolution”.

Council received his reports at a meeting on October 7. The full text is available in the meeting agenda on the Town website. The mayor announced that he would launch a challenge of the Code of Conduct in Ontario Superior Court.

This article provides highlights of each complaint and the commissioner’s comments.

Resident Nyola Holliday, Mayoral candidate David Lyver and Maieron each filed separate complaints, alleging that Councillors Barb Tocher, Josie Wintersinger and Deb Callaghan had shown “lack of respect for the public” and violated the Code by walking out of a meeting on August 12.

“Mr. Lyver was not present when the alleged violation occurred but provided no independent evidence to support his own claim,” he said, adding that none of the complaints explained what section of the Code had been violated.

Williams said council’s reconsideration of a previous motion, about a Code case in which the mayor was found guilty, was procedurally correct. He said the mayor violated the Procedural Bylaw by refusing to allow the vote and by exceeding the 10-minute speaking limit. He said the three councillors did not violate the bylaw or the Code of Ethics by leaving the meeting, though they could have used “alternative tactics”.

“While it is a regrettable and extraordinary to break quorum to force an issue to a vote, I am persuaded that this was not a coordinated strategy,” he said.

Maieron’s complaint alleges the action was pre-planned, and that councillors had no new information to justify reconsideration of a motion. Williams said it is unlikely the councillors would work out a plan “for something that no one knew was going to occur.” He said something had changed since the previous meeting, since Councillor Wintersinger “believed that Mr. Maieron had misled Council and the public at the July 22 meeting” about his lawsuit against the Town.

Williams said a previous case where Maieron was sanctioned for leaving a meeting is not a precedent in this case, since the mayor has a legal duty to chair meetings, and since the previous case involved his refusal to “respect the majority vote of council”.

In another complaint, the mayor says Councillor John Brennan violated the Code of Ethics with “dishonest” and “misleading” statements and improper conduct at the August 12 meeting. Williams said there is no evidence of false or misleading statements by Brennan, that there was no conspiracy to reconsider a motion, and that if Brennan was acting for “political self-interest”, it was not a violation of the Code of Ethics.

Williams admitted that he himself was responsible for some of the confusion at that meeting since he had grouped two recommendations – one to receive his report on the mayor and the other to penalize the mayor.

“It was an error that clearly complicated the decision before Council on July 22. I will learn from it,” he said. Brennan was right to seek agreement to allow the recommendations to be voted on separately, he said.

In a separate complaint, the mayor alleges that Councillor Tocher violated the Code by “disrupting almost every meeting”, making “disrespectful facial gestures” and showing “general disregard of proper process”. He suggests that his complaint could be expanded to other council members for allowing her behaviour.

Williams said Maieron provided no dates, exhibits or witnesses to corroborate his allegations, but that he suggested the commissioner interview regular council attendees. Williams said it is not his job to seek out evidence in support of a complaint.

“I do not doubt that Erin Council meetings have been at times passionate, at times casual or perhaps even disorderly in character. Mr. Maieron, however, chooses to place primary blame for these aspects of Erin Council’s meetings at the feet of Councillor Tocher and paints a portrait of himself as the victim of his colleague’s actions.”

Williams said various rules are in place to control councillors’ conduct, and he finds it “extraordinary” that this complaint coincides with Maieron and Tocher competing for the same office in this month’s election. He suggests Erin follow the lead of other municipalities and impose an election black-out period for Code cases.

In addition to finding no case against Tocher, Williams ruled the complaint vexatious, in that it was “intended solely to cause trouble”.

In another complaint, the mayor alleges that all other council members violated the Code, the Procedural Bylaw and the Municipal Act by allowing an “impromptu delegation” on February 18. Even though the signed complaint arrived slightly after the 6-month deadline, Williams agreed to deal with it.

The mayor makes various allegations of misconduct against staff that “verge on the defamatory”, said Williams, noting that has no authority to investigate staff, or violations of laws outside the Code of Ethics. He said Maieron is protected by the confidential status of his complaint.

Williams ruled that the complaint is based on “a faulty interpretation of what occurred”, that the agenda was properly amended to allow a delegation, and that for the mayor “to contrive to spin this event into the trigger for an avalanche” (a later code complaint against him) was “untenable”.

In another complaint, the mayor alleges that Councillor Callaghan violated the Code by failing to declare a pecuniary interest in relation to the CAO’s review of the Town’s Personal Policy, since her husband is the Fire Chief. Williams said the mayor “appears not to have understood the agenda item”.

The commissioner said that since it was only an update on a review of the policy to see if it met provincial rules, and not an actual change to the policy, it is “completely groundless” to suggest a conflict of interest. He said the complaint is vexatious, “intended solely to cause trouble for or to annoy Councillor Callaghan and serves no public purpose.”

Maieron submitted a batch of ten other complaints against Councillor Callaghan, which Williams dealt with in a single report.

On an allegation that she made a false statement about her training on the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, Williams found her statement was actually truthful.

On an allegation that she stopped her vehicle many times near the home of a resident who has filed a legal complaint against her, and that she or a supporter may have made a retaliatory property standards complaint against him, Williams said there is no evidence to support it. He said there is a complaint against the resident, but that Callaghan did not file it.

The mayor alleges that Callaghan has failed to declare a conflict regarding discussions of the Servicing and Settlement Master Plan, since she and her husband own rental properties and that a decision on sewers could affect them financially. Williams said that since there has been no outcome to the process, and no recommendations for action, there is no conflict.

“At some point though, it will be necessary for those with personal interests to step back. That point has not yet been reached on SSMP.”

An allegation that Callaghan improperly received a direct personal benefit by attending an educational session on conflict of interest, organized by CAO Frank Miele, paid for by the Town, and open to all councillors, cannot be sustained, said Williams.

An allegation that Callaghan violated the Code by asking for a summary report of all Town legal expenses over eight years left Williams “perplexed” about what to investigate. He said asking for the report cannot be construed as a violation. When the actual report came to council, listing the firm that hosted the above-mentioned meeting, both Callaghan and Maieron declared a conflict.

On allegations that Callaghan revealed confidential information in a court affidavit, Williams said the information was properly obtained, and did not reveal details from a closed council session.

On an allegation that Callaghan did not on various occasions provide details about why she was declaring a conflict of interest on Fire Department matters, Williams said, “I find that this complaint has some validity.” However, the issue falls outside his authority under the Code of Ethics, he said.

The Municipal Conflict of Interest Act says that when members declare a conflict, they shall “disclose the interest and the general nature thereof”. Williams said members should provide clearer explanations for their declarations, and that these should be included in the minutes.

Maieron alleges that Callaghan “apparently”, in a closed session in April 2013, voted to fire former CAO Frank Miele, her husband’s supervisor, without declaring a pecuniary interest in open council, and then participated in the decision to hire a new CAO.

Williams said sections of the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act might apply to this situation if proven in court. But he said no direct violation of the Code of Ethics has been clearly identified. He said the firing was not related to Miele’s role as Chief Callaghan’s supervisor, and that no CAO can affect the Fire Chief’s employment, salary or hours. In any case, the time limit for a Code complaint on these events has expired.

“If the action of an elected official is not serious enough to prompt someone to address it within six months, this must surely cast doubt on the seriousness of the offence,” said Williams.

The mayor complains about the appearance of “nepotism in the Town of Erin’s hiring’s” and questions the hiring of Councillor Callaghan’s son Mackenzie as a firefighter. Williams said there is no foundation to the complaint, that the hiring was properly conducted under Town policy without involvement of the Fire Chief, and that other fire officers will handle all employment decisions and supervision related to this firefighter.

The mayor alleges that Callaghan met with and received help from the CAO and Clerk with a Code of Ethics complaint against him, and received information that was not shared with other council members. Williams said no investigation is warranted, since Maieron is offering only “anonymous and unsubstantiated accusations”, with no evidence about the topics of meetings or the sharing of information.