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Council’s Integrity Commissioner settles three Code of Conduct complaints

June 28, 2019   ·   0 Comments

By Kira Wronska Dorward

New Tecumseth Integrity Commissioner Meaghan Barett was present in spirit at the June 24 Committee of the Whole Meeting.

Pursuant to three Code of Conduct complaints filed against Council members (one against Deputy Mayor Norcross and one against Councillor Beattie, one against Council as a whole), an inquiry by the Town had been launched and the findings presented to Council for vote, all of which were passed unanimously and without comment.

However, during voting on the second complaint, Councillor MacLellan turned her chair and did not participate as she had a conflict of interest.

The first complaint was directed at the Council as a whole regarding whether or not attendance at an annual Christmas party was appropriate for Council members. Both the Mayor and the Clerk were interviewed to gain insight into “what the nature and scope of the event encompasses.”

The unnamed host of the party is a “major” local land developer who has been doing business in the Town for the last two decades.

This developer, through the course of his dealings, often seeks approvals and negotiating agreements, including that regarding water servicing and supply for residential developments, and frequently meets and corresponds with the Town staff.

Typically, the host invites members of Council and senior members of staff to this annual party. Those attendees have previous personal relationships with the developer in question and attend “in their personal capacity as friends.”

The several course meal served is described as “lavish”, and a live band plays.

“The Code of Conduct establishes a general prohibition against the receipt of gifts, benefits, hospitality, and otherwise by members of Council,” reads section 7.2. “The policy rationale for the prohibition is to avoid the potential for improper influence in municipal decision making on the basis of relationships rather than public interest.”

While there are several exceptions outlined in the Code of Conduct (COC), anything accepted must be in the form of an infrequent special event.

The terms of the exceptions do not apply to an annual Christmas party, it was decided by the Integrity Commissioner that “it is not appropriate for members of Council to attend the Party vis-à-vis their obligations pursuant to the Code of Conduct.”

In terms of the common law, the Commissioner also deemed that “it would be prudent for members to refrain from attending the party in order to avoid the potential perception of a conflict of interest or an apparent conflict of interest.”

It was also brought into evidence that the CAO had previously, in 2017, sent a letter to the host stating that staff was precluded from attending the party, specifically noting that Town staff must be “above reproach”, although he does allow some senior members of staff to attend based on a pre-existing personal relationship.

The conclusion of the report was that “based on the foregoing, it is our recommendation that members of Council should refrain from attending the Party.”

The second formal complaint was filed against Councillor Michael Beattie, alleging that the Councillor “contravened the Town’s previous Code of Conduct by using Town property in contravention of Section 6 of the Code, and furthermore, that the Town property was used in the Councillor’s election campaign in contravention of Section 7 of the Code.”

Although this rule is no longer in effect with the new Code, it was during the time of the election campaign.

Specifically, Councillor Beattie was accused of posting inappropriate information and other content on his social media pertaining to the election, including a request for votes and a photograph “of an empty chair, table, microphone, and nameplate with the words ‘Councillor Michael Beattie’, which appear to be the Councillor’s chair, microphone, and nameplate in the Council Chambers.”

The response does not deny that these materials were used, but that it does not meet the definition of Town property, noting that nameplates “are routinely retained by outgoing members of Council as keepsakes.”

The finding of the Integrity Commissioner was that “the Councillor has contravened Sections 6 and 7 of the Code but has done so in a minimal manner…the Response submits that ‘no special advantage’ was accorded to the Councillor…since ‘Council Chamber is a public venue and any member of the public is able to take a photo of the empty Council table and chair at no cost.’” The Commissioner “was inclined to agree

[with the Complainant]

with respect to the table, microphone, and empty chair” but makes the proviso that the Town’s logo, flag, or coat of arms were not present in the photograph. The issue of the nameplate is more complex, that while still not being property any member of the public would have access to, nor strictly belonging to the individual councillor, but instead in practice given as a keepsake after the councillor’s term has ended, having “important associative value to each member.”

In sum, it was decided that ultimately use of these materials did constitute “a material advantage” to the Councillor, but that ”the Councillor’s contraventions of the Code were in all respects minimal and appear to have been inadvertent.”

The Integrity Commissioner recommended no sanctions or remedial measures for Councillor Beattie, and advised he exercise caution in future.

The third and final complaint was specifically against Deputy Mayor Norcross for the same reasons as Councillor Beattie.

The complaint alleges that Norcross posted certain photographs to his official municipal campaign website; the first is of the Deputy Mayor with members of the Beeton Fire Fighters’ Association; the second shows Norcross cutting a ribbon at the official opening of Jim Mulligan Park with the Town’s logo displayed on a sign in the background; and a third photograph of the Deputy Mayor and other Councillors and staff at a meeting in Council Chambers.

The use of these photographs in an election campaign is a violation of Sections 6 and 7 of the former Code of Conduct.

The findings of the Integrity Commissioner were that although Norcross did contravene the Code, he did so “in a marginal manner.” Specifically, the Town logo visible in the second photo is intellectual property and therefore cannot be used by members of Council for anything other than official Town business. The Response states that the Deputy Mayor “did not place the Town logo in my campaign literature to suggest any endorsement f my candidacy by the Town or anyone else to gain advantage over my opponents” and that the logo’s appearance was “incidental”.

Regarding the final photo inside Chamber, the Commissioner cited the example of the City of Toronto, which advised its members that “it was permissible to use a photo of the Councillor with Toronto City Hall in the background so long as the City’s logo, flag and coat of arms were not in the shot and no City resources were used to take the photo.”

“In our view,” the Commissioner states in the findings, “the image in Photograph #3 is not analogous to a photograph of a member of the Council with the with the Town Hall in the background. The image of the Deputy Mayor in Photograph #3 is not an image the other members of the public, nor other candidates running in the election, would be able to depict…Town resources were employed to ‘set the scene.’…The result is an image with significant associative value to the Deputy Mayor that powerfully conveys his position as an incumbent member of Council.”

The conclusion of the investigation was that Norcross did contravene the Code, but marginally enough to appear to have been done inadvertently and without deliberate intention. It was recommended that no sanctions or remedial measures be taken against the Deputy Mayor, and that he exercise more caution in the future about campaigning with the use of Town property as it “may provide an incumbent member of council with an unfair advantage over an unelected candidate.”

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