With the return of one councillor from vacation, Grimsby councillors show up at second special meeting to reinstate & issue apology to CAO.
By Mike Williscraft
After five Grimsby councillors were no-shows at a special meeting of council called last week, all were in attendance Monday night to recall the chief administrative officer after he was put on administrative leave last Tuesday, Feb. 4.
Mayor Jeff Jordan said last week he acted on the advice from two lawyers – one with an employment law expert and the other with expertise in municipal government – when he placed CAO Harry Schlange on paid administrative leave pending an investigation into complaints filed against him.
Later that same day, he called an emergency meeting of council for the following day, Feb. 5.
Most members of council confirmed their attendance with clerk Sarah Kim, except Coun. Kevin Ritchie, who was on vacation and did not respond. Ritchie had not informed clerk he would be away.
However, when council gathered later that evening for the meeting, only Jordan, showed up along with Coun. Dorothy Bothwell, Coun. Reg Freake and Coun. Lianne Vardy.
Coun. Randy Vaine, Coun. Dave Kadwell, Coun. Dave Sharpe and Coun. John Dunstall did not show up. The meeting was called as five members of council are needed to form a quorum and later in the week a second special meeting was called for Monday.
Vaine said he is studying for a Master’s Degree and forgot he had a class. Kadwell said he “reconsidered” after realizing Ritchie was away and noting he thought it important all members of council be in attendance to deal with this issue.
Monday night, council dealt with the matter in closed session, expelling the gallery to the board room at the Peach King Centre to ensure nothing could be heard or seen from the confidential discussion through the clear glass walls of the council chamber.
The only comment before the closed portion came when Dunstall took the unusual step to confirm what would be covered in closed session.
“Will we be discussing the email that we received last Tuesday?” Dunstall asked.
“We will be discussing several things under closed session,” Jordan confirmed.
Dunstall was referring to an email sent widely last week to Niagara Region officials, Town of Grimsby officials and some members of the media. The email, which outlined several alleged and unsubstantiated claims, chastised council for not taking with regard to complaints filed with the Town of Grimsby. No contact information, other than the email address, for the sender was included.
When council rose from closed session, those in the board room were notified they could return to town hall for the open portion of the meeting.
Council resumed after nearly two hours of in camera debate for a five minute open portion long enough to pass a motion moved by Sharpe, seconded by Ritchie, which read:
“Whereas the administrative leave imposed on Tuesday, Feb 4, 2020 was not a decision of Council;
And whereas the Mayor acted without consulting Council;
And whereas Council confirms that CAO Harry Schlange was not being investigated nor is he being accused of any misconduct;
Therefore be it resolved that Council issue a formal apology to CAO Harry Schlange.
And be it resolved, that CAO Harry Schlange resumes his responsibilities as CAO as of Tuesday, February 11, 2020.
And be it further resolved that Council appoint the Town Clerk to hire a third party, to investigate any allegations that may arise from this matter.”
The motion was passed by a 5-4 recorded vote with Ritchie, Sharpe, Vaine, Dunstall and Kadwell voting in favour with Jordan, Bothwell, Vardy and Freake opposing.
As soon as the vote was completed, some male staff in attendance bolted for the door. About a half-dozen female staff were in attendance as well. Several of them were moved to tears in the lobby after the meeting broke up.
After the meeting, Ritchie said his support for reinstating the CAO was not a lack of support for staff.
“I always support staff,” said Ritchie.
“If there are any complaints, we’ll deal with them.”
He went on to justify the same five councillors approving a Code of Conduct last month with a whistleblower component which did not allow for an independent, third-party reporting mechanism, rather, any complaints would have to be registered with the CAO or the Town’s HR department.
“It’s a working document,” Ritchie said.
Bothwell noted several shortcomings with the policy at the time, suggesting it be deferred to allow for several adjustments, but none were acted upon. Ritchie said that was because no motion was put forward.
Bothwell brought a resolution at the Feb. 3 meeting, when Ritchie was absent, and got a motion passed for a report to be drafted on implementing third party reporting mechanism.
All members of council were given questions after Monday’s meeting. Generally, questions were: explain your position on the motion in question; for those who supported the motion, why would you contradict advice from an employment law expert, while those who opposed the motion were asked if they have concerns that contradicting the legal opinion would escalate the Town’s liability, and; what does the result of the vote say about council’s commitment to staff?
Those who supported the motion to reinstate and issue an apology –
Sharpe’s comments were:
“I didn’t just support the motion, I drafted the motion and I moved it.”
“A person is not guilty until proven innocent. As a councillor I have information in closed session which I cannot share in the newspaper, but what I can say is there is no grounds to put the CAO on paid leave. The motion Council carried this evening also gave direction to the clerk to hire a third party investigator to get to the bottom of any allegations related to this matter.”
“Grimsby is a terrific place to work, with good hours, holidays, pension, benefits, and more. I think some staff are afraid that changes at Town Hall may affect their jobs. We have a great staff and staff should not react to the rumours being spread. Further, the CAO is a member of staff. Thanks for your interest Mike, looks like I’ll be buying donuts at work for having my name in the paper again.”
Dunstall’s comment was:
“With an investigation commencing I would not want to make any comment. But please reach out to me when the investigation is completed.”
Vaine’s comments were:
“First of all, any thing that I say is strictly my opinion and I speak on my behalf and NOT on behalf of the Town or for Council.”
“As you know, I cannot speak about anything discussed in Closed Council session. As always, I based my decision based on the quality of the information provided to Council or lack thereof. I made an informed decision with the information provided.”
“Same answer as #1.”
“My priority in any decision is always what is best for the Town, the Residents and Town staff. Over the past 15 months, I have gone to great lengths to support all Town staff through a lot of challenges and changes; that has not changed but I can only work with what information is provided to me. I will continue to support staff.”
Kadwell’s comments were:
“My vote to support the motion was based on an email that I received on Tuesday February 4 pertaining to rumours of the CAO. The actions that were taken based on the contents of this email, in my opinion were premature. This action was not supported by EVERY voting member of Council at that time. I’m supporting Councils motion to have a independent 3rd party investigation.”
Ritchie’s comments were:
Those who opposed the motion –
Vardy’s comments were:
“The Mayor had sought legal advice as to the proper way to handle this issue. He acted with fairness and due regard to all town staff. He then immediately called for an emergency special council meeting for the next day (24 hours is required) to discuss the matter with Council. The Mayor acted within his authority and with the advice of Counsel. Thats the first reason why I opposed the motion. Secondly, it is not proper process to undertake an investigation this kind with the Manager involved present in the workplace.”
“The fact that they voted against legal advice is very worrying and disconcerting. Not just because of the potential liability the Town might face but more importantly about the potential negative impact on staff.”
“No doubt they (staff) feel we have abandoned them and that we have left them in a very uncomfortable and precarious position. I personally am very uncomfortable with the outcome this evening.”
Freake’s comments were:
I supported the mayor as it was legally (per Ontario Occupational Health & Safety Act and the Ontario Labour Act) the responsibility of council to ensure that ToG staff have a safe and secure workplace and also to ensure that parties on both sides are protected. It was also the morally right decision. We cannot and must not risk those who are accused and/or those who might have legitimate concerns.”
“We are obligated as elected officials to protect the Town and employees and that includes all levels of staff including the CAO. If we don’t follow good legal advice then if either party is found at fault this could lead to legal claims against council and the Town. Let’s hope that both parties are without fault.”
“Hopefully they (staff) recognize that we want (obligated by oath) to protect ALL our staff both morally and legally. Not sure how to answer that question beyond that as I’m not privy to any official alleged complaints by staff. If there’s any credence to any allegations good or bad then I’m sure that we will lose their confidence. But we should always follow good legal advice.”
“It’s a very sad sequence of events and there are no winners – only more confusion and more bad blood. Maybe we can get through this mess but lots of work and compromise is necessary.”
Bothwell’s comments were:
“I was disappointed with the outcome of last evening’s Council meeting. I support the Mayor in his actions under the circumstances and understanding that he did not act unilaterally and sought and received specific legal advice to support his decision. It was frustrating to not have quorum at the Special Council meeting called by the Mayor the next day. All parties deserve a respectful, fulsome and expedient process to bring this matter to resolution.”
Jordan’s comments were:
“I didn’t make any decision lightly I relied on both HR and municipal legal opinion before any action. I set a meeting at first availability. Quorum was confirmed for the Wednesday evening meeting. Only 4 attended.
“I acted appropriately given the extremely difficult and sensitive situation and tried to protect everyone involved.. If the same situation happened again I wouldn’t act any differently. I am proud of my town and our staff and will always act openly and transparently and in their best interests.”