By Mike Williscraft
Deuces were wild at Monday night’s Grimsby council meeting called to review Ombudsman Ontario office reports deferred from April 18’s meeting.
There were two reports on the table.
There were two sides to the debate on each item with two distinctly differing views from the same councillors on issues with similar transparency and accountability themes.
The debate lasted just over two hours.
Among several moves, council voted to send one matter to the Town’s Integrity Commissioner and, on another issue, a written update from the Town’s banking institution will be requested to clear up issues when a three-week gap in having an authorized signing authority occurred after director of finance Steven Gruninger was terminated by current CAO Harry Schlange.
One report on the agenda was penned by Ombudsman Paul Dubé, dealing with five different concerns filed with his office after a 5-4 council vote in support of the move.
The topics stemmed from changes made with staff in early 2019 just after council was installed following the 2018 municipal election.
• Administrative issues at February 2019 meeting at which council opted to terminate then-CAO Derik Brandt;
• During the period when the Town had no CAO, the clerk at that time, Hazel Soady Easton was offered a retirement package without council’s approval;
• an allegation of a conflict of interest regarding the hiring of a lawyer, and;
• concerns about billings from an external lawyer and a breach of the Town’s Code of Conduct.
Dubé’s report noted none of the issues he reviewed required further investigation or review. He noted the matters he researched were nothing more than administrative matters. He suggested some procedural reviews and
education sessions on varied topics.
“This happened very early in 2019. We’ve since moved on. We’ve since hired another CAO. We’ve since, sort of, gotten our house in order. So, What’s the point of this?” asked Coun. Lianne Vardy.
“The Ombudsman did not find any criminal wrongdoing. He said we collectively made some mistakes in procedure. That’s a far cry from some sort of malfeasance.”
On the matter of the clerk being offered a package, Coun. Kevin Ritchie said it would be “awesome” to be able to go to your boss and get a six-month package to stay home when you had already stated an intention to retire in a month, but Vardy noted that was one of the items cited in the report for which there is no evidence to back up the allegation.
“It is my understanding, she (the clerk) went to human resources and human resources felt it was a reasonable request and human resources would have been the right person to go to,” said Vardy.
As proof, Ritchie read from an email which was part of a package of hard-copy emails which he found had been dropped off in the mailbox at his residence.
Ritchie did not identify who the author of the email was or for whom it was intended. He also did not say he had confirmed they were authentic. Later, Ritchie read out personal emails for Jordan and Coun. Reg Freake, but did not identify what email or document he was claiming to which they were attached.
Regardless, he read from a document which outlined a “bridge” proposal and pay details with an ending, “…I propose this offer to you with the approval from Mayor (Jeff) Jordan.”
“Did you approve this package?” Ritchie asked Jordan.
“Not that I know of,” Jordan answered.
“I haven’t seen those emails. I have not been offered to see them. I don’t know even if they are real.”
Ritchie claimed he offered them to anyone at the last meeting, adding he agreed with Dunstall’s contention “this is a report that has several recommendations in it, several. I think we should be following those recommendations.”
Coun. Reg Freake, noting he agreed with Vardy’s contention that the matters were minor, three years old and were all decisions which were a direction council intended to go, said, “I don’t know what some councillors in this room want from this. Do you want to go back and rehire the clerk? Do you want to go back and rehire the CAO?”
As well, Freake added, “I don’t see any recommendations in the Ombudsman report. It says ‘suggests’. It mentions words like ‘alleged’. It mentions words like ‘found no evidence’. You must be reading a different Ombudsman report.”
“At the end of the day, three years ago, we were new at this council – two months into this council. Yes, we did things wrong…We’ve come a long way since then. We’ve had the training that has been mentioned in this report. ..We’re trying to change history here.”
Shortly after, a recess was called to allow the clerk to photocopy the documents Ritchie had, as many councillors had not seen them.
A motion to file a complaint with the Integrity Commissioner to investigate the relationship between council and “the lawyers” with respect to a conflict of interest was voted down after Coun. Dave Sharpe made it clear he not did believe there was a conflict.
“I don’t believe that is a conflict of interest. I think I understand how a conflicts work and I’m cautious to send the Integrity Commissioner on a three-year-old goose chase for something that I am not sure is a conflict,” said Sharpe.
“I don’t believe there is a conflict of interest. That may not be a popular opinion (among some members of council), but I think it’s a factual opinion.”
The motion to call for an IC investigation was approved 5-4 with Jordan casting the deciding vote in favour of reviewing the conflict of interest claim. Others in favour were Ritchie, Dunstall, Coun. Randy Vaine and Coun. Dave Kadwell.
LAW SOCIETY COMPLAINT
A motion to file a complaint with the Law Society of Ontario regarding “the conduct of the lawyer mentioned in the Ombudsman report” was approved 5-4 with Ritchie, Vaine, Kadwell, Sharpe and Dunstall voting in favour.
Again, Vardy noted some simple procedural errors were made but contended the outcomes wished by council were all completed.
“The decisions that we took would have been the same,” said Vardy.
“Why are we doing this. Why are we wasting time doing this. We fixed whatever problem, procedural problem. What is the true motivation behind it.”
Sharpe and Dunstall claimed the Town got incomplete or incorrect advice noting they would support the motion.
Ritchie made a motion to have staff “review and strengthen” the Town’s staff/council policy.
This motion was approved unanimously.