By Mike Williscraft
Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé did not have enough concern with complaints escalated to his office by five members of Grimsby council to merit a “formal investigation” regarding some council members’ conduct.
In an eight-page ruling issued March 31, Dubé wrote, “For the reasons set out below, I have not conducted a formal investigation of the concerns raised by council. However, based on my preliminary review of this matter, I have made some best practice suggestions for council to generally address several of the issues raised. Under the circumstances, we will not be reviewing this matter further.”
The Ombudsman has the authority to address complaints about public sector bodies, including provincial governmental organizations, municipalities, school boards, and universities as well as other agencies.
“When problems are identified, I may share best practices or make recommendations to a municipality to improve its processes, as well as to strengthen local governance and accountability,” wrote Dubé.
The matters sent to Dubé by a 5-4 approved motion of council asked for an investigation into the process and conduct of CAO Derik Brandt’s termination in February 2019 as well as circumstances around clerk Hazel Soady-Easton being offered a retirement package in the window of time when there was no CAO.
While some issues with process were found, similar to Grimsby’s Integrity Commissioner, the Ombudsman found the matter did not merit more review.
In his summation, Dubé concluded, “I am exercising my discretion to not conduct a further review of council’s concerns.’
“However, I encourage Council for the Town of Grimsby to carefully consider the best practices I have identified to improve the accountability and transparency of its municipal practices.”
The process was initiated by five councillors – Kevin Ritchie, Randy Vaine, Dave Kadwell, John Dunstall and Dave Sharpe – who approved five different motions on items they wanted the Ombudsman to review.
This was after Grimsby’s Integrity Commissioner found no serious issues.
In the termination of the CAO, Dubé found proper process was followed, save for council’s need to approve a confirming bylaw on the backend of the process, which did not happen.
The report includes allegations made by council members regarding the conduct of Mayor Jeff Jordan and at least one other council member. With key conversations held in closed session, council is very careful how the matter is discussed.
Coun. Dorothy Bothwell cited several remaining concerns regarding the current CAO Harry Schlange’s directing staff to sign bank documents when they did not have signing authority. Bothwell also noted Schlange notified the bank that proper authority would be approved at the next council meeting when that did not, in fact, happen.
Vaine, however, was focused on other matters.
“What I am more concerned with is that a severance package was offered to an employee which was not brought before council, similar to the biodigester legal [counsel]…,” said Vaine.
At that point, Jordan jumped in to warn Vaine he was giving out confidential information discussed in closed session.
“I’d be very careful about that because that was all discussed in closed session,” said Jordan.
“I’m talking about the Ombudsman report,” said Vaine.
“When I read the report, it clearly stated there was stuff done by yourself without any authorization from council…What the CAO did…”
Again, Jordan jumped in.
“Are you identifying individuals, Coun. Vaine?” Jordan asked.
“Just you,” said Vaine.
“That’s a violation of closed session,” stated Jordan.
Vaine maintained his information is in the report, “It’s very clear.”
At several points, the Ombudsman report states “allegations” were made and comments were given about conduct, but it also notes no further investigation is merited and the truthfulness and accuracy of information was not confirmed or proven save for processes of council such as various motions.
Vaine maintained, he “was just saying what I read.”
“I’m very concerned here. What else is going on that we don’t know about?
Ritchie said much of the information “came from information that was put into my mailbox.”
On the report, Ritchie said, “It is a little vague when it speaks to councillors, but it does not necessarily involve councillors.”
“The ombudsman has put forward several recommendations, which I don’t think we have time to talk about tonight.”
At that point, Ritchie made a motion to defer to a special meeting of council to be set for next Monday, April 25 – at which time, he also requested an update on all legal files “by the ‘legal counsel’ identified in the report.”
On the matter of an individual acting beyond their authority, Dubé noted, “No individual councillor or mayor has authority to act unilaterally, and it is not the role of council to act as the employer of individual staff members besides the CAO.”
While pointing out the Town has a policy in place, “we found no evidence that council attempted to address its concerns through the Town Manager (CAO) or the Integrity Commissioner.”
Dubé recommended “council receive initial and periodic training on the Council-Staff Policy”.
In the matter of complete and proper processes, in this instance lack of a confirming bylaw, Dubé wrote, “In future, the Town should review its practices to ensure that it has properly exercised its authority through by-law unless specifically authorized to do otherwise.”
Concerns about conflict of interest were not reviewed as the Town’s limitation period had expired for any possible complaint.
Concern about billings of the lawyer identified in the report were directed to the Law Society of Ontario.
Concerns about a breach of Town security with respect to emails, Dubé suggested addressing the matter with the Town’s IT department.