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No violation after Erin Code of Ethics investigation

by Phil Gravelle

ERIN - The integrity commissioner has found no Code of Ethics violation after investigating a complaint made in the spring against councillor Rob Smith.

Council was expected to receive a report from commissioner Robert Williams at the Dec. 5 meeting of council. Completed on June 8, the report was not made public earlier because of a black-out period prior to the municipal election.

In a report, deputy clerk Lisa Campion recommended council accept the report for information. The commissioner has billed the town $1,450 for his work.

Williams investigated a complaint from a woman who had a conversation with Smith on April 21 while she was in downtown Erin seeking signatures for a petition opposing expansion of the Halton Crushed Stone (HCS) gravel pit.

The commissioner did not name the complainant, who alleges Smith made improper use of confidential information about HCS appealing its case to the Ontario Municipal Board due to the lack of a decision by Erin council.

Robyn Johnstone contacted the Advertiser and identified herself as the complainant. She said she is “pretty disappointed with how it was all handled,” saying that Smith’s conditional apology for a “misunderstanding” was not acceptable.

Williams found that town council had not discussed HCS issues in closed session for several years, and that there were no confidential matters discussed with Johnstone.

She alleges Smith said several times that HCS had already filed its appeal.

Williams’ report said Smith recalled his comments “were not based on specific information about HCS, but rather that he was referring to information about a number of zoning and other applications that was shared in open council by a representative of the county planning department.”

Both Williams and Wellington planner Aldo Salis said HCS had not made an appeal at the time of the conversation with Johnstone. The appeal was widely anticipated, but it was not made until July. No hearing date has been set.

Williams said the complainant also alleged Smith “told her that her efforts were ‘a waste of time’ and that ‘nothing we did would matter.’

“The complainant believes that councillor Smith was using ‘scare tactics to intimidate and influence the decisions voters make when they are standing up for their own basic human rights’,” Williams said.

The code prohibits a wide range of behaviour, including bullying and harassment of fellow councillors, staff and the public.

Smith, who was returned to council in the Oct. 22 election, said this week he was “shocked” when he first learned of the complaint, since he was not opposed to the complainant’s cause.

He said he was “trying to help,” but it was not appropriate for him as a councillor to sign the petition.

Smith had previously made a motion, approved by council, to defer a decision on the gravel pit in hopes of reaching a negotiated settlement.

The complainant’s written statement characterizes Smith’s comments as “inconsiderate”, “intimidating” and “threatening”, said Williams.

He noted Smith disputed the accuracy of many of the complainant’s statements and categorically denied the allegation that his words were intended as a threat or an intimidation. He twice offered a conditional apology for any “misunderstanding.”

Williams said he has “no way of ‘proving’ which version is right and which is not.” While he found the complaint was “not frivolous,” he was “not persuaded that councillor Smith breached the Town of Erin Code of Ethics.”

Smith said this week, “Councillors should not be afraid to talk to people. It’s not healthy to stop engaging with the public. You just have to be careful.”

In summation, Williams said, “Councillors ought not to shun engaging in a lively discussion with colleagues around the council table or to debate with those who may hold another view about a matter of town business or policy. That is what happens in ‘politics.’

“This complaint suggests that there may be an important lesson to be learned: be sensitive to the possibility that your words and actions can be perceived as unwelcome.”

Erin’s Council Code of Ethics has the following provision designed to avoid the disruption that a code complaint could cause during an election campaign:

“No complaint regarding a member who is a candidate in an election may be accepted by the integrity commissioner for review and/or investigation between May 31 and the date of the inaugural meeting of council in any year in which a regular municipal election will be held.

“The integrity commissioner shall hold such complaint in abeyance until December 1 in a regular election year and advise the complainant of the process.”

Deputy clerk Lisa Campion said in her report to council, “Given that the matter was under investigation until June 8th, 2018 the report was held until after the inaugural meeting as per the code.”

 

December 7, 2018

 
 

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