Coun. Kevin Ritchie recommended for censure for “premeditated action…designed to malign and insult”
By Mike Williscraft
Grimsby Integrity Commissioner (IC), Charles A. Harnick, had a lot to say at Monday’s council meeting, little of it favourable.
Findings for a series of seven total IC complaints went before council, two were withdrawn.
In two incidents, councillors Kevin Ritchie and Randy Vaine were found in breach of the Town’s Code of Conduct.
A complaint by Coun. Reg Freake noted Ritchie’s statements in regard to Freake’s position on Grimsby Energy’s board of directors were “disturbing and untrustworthy”.
This Harnick noted was unneeded inflammatory language used by Ritchie under the ruse of a review of hydro board appointments, but which, “In reality it was a motion to remove Councillor Freake from his position on the Grimsby Energy Board,” wrote Harnick in his July 20 decision.
“This Council appears to be split on a five to four basis on all contentious issues it has faced,”- Charles A. Harnick, Integrity Commissioner
The text of Ritchie’s prewritten motion which was discussed Jan. 21 in closed session read:
“One of the most important characteristics when looking to appoint individuals to any board as a director is trust. Trust to do the right thing and trust that the information is being provided to the right individuals. In my opinion over several occasions this trust has been broken. Weather [sic] it is comments about getting 10 cents on the dollar or opening up Pandora’s box in relation to compensation, Council made a decision for compensation for the sale of biodigestor, yet Councillor Freake’s actions have been disturbing and untrustworthy in this regard. His decision making has created a trust issue and it is for these reasons that I am requesting this council to replace Councillor Freake with Councillor Sharpe.”
The fact this was pre-written did not sit well with Harnick.
“Councillor Freake points specifically to the fact that he was described as being untrustworthy and that the actions he took while a member of the Energy Board were disturbing and untrustworthy,” noted Harnick in his findings.
“Councillor Ritchie stated that he did not agree with the positions that Councillor Freake had been taking with regards to Grimsby Energy.”
Harnick noted the chairperson could have ruled the comments as inflammatory and asked for them to be withdrawn at that point in time.
Since that did not occur, the remarks were left to stand.
“The Code of Conduct states that “A member shall not use indecent, abusive, or insulting words or expressions toward any other member…”. To allege that a member’s actions are “disturbing and untrustworthy” is an insult. The preamble to the motion was not an angry outburst during the course of heated debate, followed by an immediate apology and withdrawal of remarks; this was a premeditated action, drafted by Councillor Ritchie in advance of the meeting, designed to malign and insult Councillor Freake,” wrote Harnick.
“This motion could easily have been presented without the inflammatory language of the preamble, in order to accomplish what those who supported the motion wanted to achieve. I conclude that Councillor Ritchie has breached the Code of Conduct for the Council of the Town of Grimsby.”
Harnick added that using the cloak of closed session for such conduct does not excuse the infraction.
“The fact that this occurred in closed session is not a justification for the comments that were made. The Code of Conduct applies equally to closed session meetings as it does for open council sessions. Closed session does not suspend the operation of the Code of Conduct,” wrote Harnick.
In the end, Harnick made his findings clear, stating as a penalty, “I would recommend that Councillor Ritchie receive the most minimal penalty, which is to be reprimanded by Council. I believe such penalty will have a rehabilitative effect on Councillor Ritchie and will send a message of deterrence of such conduct to the other members on Council.”
VARDY vs VAINE, SHARPE, KADWELL
Coun. Lianne Vardy submitted complaint against three members of council for various occurrences with which she took issue.
None of the instances were considered a breach of the Code of Conduct, but Harnick still had words of concern.
In his conclusion, he stated, “Councillor Vardy has brought allegations of breaching the Members Code of Conduct against Councillors Vaine, Kadwell and Sharpe. She has brought this forward as a single complaint. She alleges that when the incidents are seen together, they demonstrate a pattern of colluding/mobbing and sexist behavior.”
“While I have been critical of the behavior of Councillors Vaine, Kadwell and Sharpe as noted, I am not prepared to conclude that their behaviour has been colluding/mobbing or sexist. I see each allegation as a distinct and separate event with no element of planned collusion by the councillors in combination with one another. Nor do I see the behaviour as sexist, given what I have determined has occurred. This Council appears to be split on a five to four basis on all contentious issues it has faced; therefore, I can see how a Councillor in the minority may conclude that collusion is occurring, even if that conclusion relates only to a single episode of behaviour. I am not prepared to come to this conclusion upon my review of the incidents referred to in the complaint.”
“The fact that this occurred in closed session is not a justification for the comments that were made,” -Charles Harnick
Vaine was found in breach of the Code of Conduct for shouting at Vardy across the council chambers in a closed Feb. 21 debate, “You’re a bully – you’re the biggest bully on Council.”
The complaint against Kadwell was found to be no issue by Harnick. Regarding Sharpe, who did not dispute calling Vardy a bully while attending a conference in Ottawa, he said he did not find it a breach since no offence was taken at the time of the discussion, which was not heated.
“I find Councillor Sharpe’s comment to Councillor Vardy troubling in that such comment was likely premeditated and bordered on bullying or intimidation, contrary to the Code of Conduct,” wrote Harnick.
DUNSTALL vs FREAKE
In the briefest findings, Harnick summarily dismissed a complaint by Coun. John Dunstall which alleged Freake had “released confidential information from a closed meeting of Council on February 10, 2020” when he was quoted in a NewsNow story dated Feb. 13, 2020.
“I have reviewed the complaint of Councillor Dunstall together with the newspaper article and I make the decision not to proceed further with this investigation. In the article, Councillor Dunstall refers to two public statutes. The mere reference to the public statutes does not constitute the release of confidential information that was the subject matter of the closed council meeting,” wrote Harnick.
VAINE vs BOTHWELL
Vaine filed a complaint with a lengthy series of concerns regarding Coun. Dorothy Bothwell.
In the end, all were determined unfounded, but Harnick did caution Bothwell to mind her approach in dealing with staff in the future on one front.
“Again, Councillor Vaine has provided little in the way of particulars,” – noted Grimsby Integrity Commissioner Charles Harnick regarding one complaint vs Coun. Bothwell
Vaine had contended Bothwell made derogatory remarks toward an employee, sent 190 emails to the same employee over five months, stated the employee be fired, and acted “rude and disrespectful to staff” at a Heritage Committee meeting.
“I am troubled by the nature of the alleged derogatory remarks; however, I am also troubled by the manner in which this complaint has been advanced,” wrote Harnick, who noted at several points in his findings that Vaine offered little information or proof his complaints.
The complaint was filed six months after what Vaine alleged were some of the infractions, filed just after a contentious debate at council in February.
This concern centred around Bothwell asking a staff person what their nationality was after noting her background was Dutch.
“Councillor Bothwell should remember that public officials have a responsibility to treat everyone with dignity and respect and to act with humility. You are not entitled to take liberties with staff just because you have been elected. Her comments come very close to crossing the line but I accept her explanation in spite of it being awkward and inappropriate at best,” wrote Harnick.
The email was dismissed as administrative since the vast majority related to one specific issue going on in Bothwell’s ward.
Regarding the call for an employee’s termination, Harnick noted the matter was discussed in closed session.
“Accordingly, I see nothing inappropriate in Councillor Bothwell’s conduct insofar as this allegation is concerned,” he wrote.
On the accusation of poor conduct at a Heritage Committee meeting, “Again, Councillor Vaine has provided little in the way of particulars.”
“I do not believe that Councillor Bothwell intended any untoward behaviour in this endeavor.”
FREAKE vs DUNSTALL
Freake brought a complaint against Dunstall which has many issues covered in it, including ongoing fraternization with former mayor Bob Bentley and past Grimsby Energy board directors, while there is an ongoing lawsuit for damages regarding the biodigester project.
Other issues included Dunstall’s no-show at a special meeting of council which was to deal with the CAO being put on administrative leave; Dunstall’s refusal to accept any sub-committee posts as all other councillors do; supporting a pre-written motion to re-instate the CAO while ignoring the advice of legal counsel to the contrary; Dunstall’s supported ouster of Bothwell as chair of the Heritage Committee, “unethically” putting forward his own name to be Chair and voting for himself; Dunstall supported removing Freake from GEI and Freake received an IC complaint which was “malicious and erroneous and that such complaint is on file with the Integrity Commissioner, and; Dunstall breached the Code of
Conduct by introducing a resolution regarding public galleries.
Harnick dismissed the concerns finding no breaches of the code of conduct.
Harnick summarized the long string of complaints by noting that Grimsby council simply has to do better.