Barbecuegate: Springwater councillors reject Principles Integrity report
Springwater Council meet on November 6 2019. From left, Councillors George Cabral and Perry Ritchie, Deputy Mayor Jennifer Coughlin, Mayor Don Allen, Clerk Renee Chaperon, Councillors Wanda Maw-Chapman, Anita Moore and Jack Hanna, with Jeffrey Abrams of consultant Principles Integrity at right.
Memo to politicians: Beware of jokes about the staff barbecue, they could come back to bite you
By Kate Harries AWARE News Network
The code of conduct case against Councillor Jack Hanna collapsed Wednesday night, with Springwater Council voting 5-2 to reject a recommendation to reprimand him for “disparaging and disrespectful” comments about township staff.
Hanna and two other councillors vigorously denied that the alleged comments were made.
Mayor Don Allen and Deputy Mayor Jennifer Coughlin voted in favour of the reprimand.
Indications of troubling undercurrents within the municipality emerged when Councillor George Cabral in his prepared statement to council suggested that a complaint against him, subsequently withdrawn, was undertaken with “malicious intent” and was “somehow retribution for doing something I’d felt morally and ethically compelled to undertake a week prior.”
The astonishing suggestion prompted no question or comment from other members of council, and Cabral provided no further detail.
Also on the agenda, a short report on a complaint about Allen’s conduct and behaviour at the Simcoe County warden’s golf tournament on June 27. The integrity commissioner investigation has been suspended until resolution of criminal charges (impaired driving and dangerous driving) laid against the mayor.
The complaint against Hanna was filed by former Springwater CAO Robert Brindley who was not at the golf event and who retired August 31 2019.
Brindley alleged that at a dinner following another golf tournament (Springwater’s, on June 12), Hanna had suggested that township staff were “sneaky”, “deceptive,” “stupid” and apt to “slip things by council.” Also that Hanna would not be attending the upcoming staff barbecue since staff did nothing for him.
Cabral and Councillor Anita Moore were initially included in the complaint, for not having rebuked Hanna at the time, but that was dropped because the code of conduct does not require them to intervene.
“I did not make any negative comments about staff,” Hanna said in a prepared statement he read out before a full council chamber.
He did agree to having made a joke about staff doing a barbecue for council. “I have stated that in jest many times, as staff that I normally interact with and I have that type of rapport. To be clear, I do not believe that staff should be barbecuing for council.”
Hanna, Cabral and Moore read out statements deploring the fact that the complaint was lodged by someone who was not present at the event, and expressing concern that the township’s code of conduct had been used improperly.
“I’ll tell you why I didn’t say anything – because nothing was said and I didn’t hear anything,” said Moore, adding that she had expected the code of conduct to assure residents that council members hold themselves to a high standard of behaviour.
“This actually feels like the opposite. It feels like a public shaming right now,” she said. She felt the expense of the investigation into “frivolous and nonsensical complaints” was unwarranted.
In response to a question from a member of the public, current CAO Jeff Schmidt said he was unable to estimate the cost of the exercise as he did not know how long the investigation had taken.
“I did not hear Councillor Hanna make any of the alleged comments,” Cabral said, adding that the use of the code of conduct in this manner was “a perversion of its intent” and was “merely serving to control and silence members of council.”
On hand to answer questions were the township’s integrity commissioner – a position held jointly by former City of Vaughan staffers Jeffrey Abrams and Janice Atwood-Petkovski of the firm Principles Integrity.
Invited by Allen to comment on the councillors’ statements, the two were cut off by Coughlin on “points of order.” These were not based on any matter of procedure, which is what points of order are for. Instead, she expressed her personal discomfort with the topic and her feeling that the discussion should not go further.
After the vote, Abrams/Atwood-Petkovski walked out of the council chamber and conferred before they left with former councillor Rick Webster, who has been cited by Coughlin as her “mentor.” So they were not present to hear Adjala-Tosorontio Deputy Mayor Bob Meadows speak to their report.
Before the meeting started, Abrams sought out Meadows who was sitting in the audience, to warn him not to mention his own code of conduct case during the last municipal term in Adj-Tos, which Abrams and Petkowski were involved in investigating on behalf of another firm.
The mayor attempted to stop Meadows and other citizens who stepped up during question period to express concern about the integrity commissioner report.
Allen said question period can only address “future” matters, and the Hanna affair had been heard (as a deputation from Abrams/Atwood-Petkovski and, unusually, already discussed and voted on by council). In fact, the agenda states that questions or comments can be about any item on the agenda.
Meadows forged ahead, zeroing in on a paragraph in the report. “This is the comment that really, really disturbs me,” he said.
The report states: “Our role differs from other adjudicators whose responsibilities generally focus on making findings of fact and fault. While that is a necessary component when allegations are made, it is not the only component.”
Meadows asked: “So if they’re not looking for factual information, what exactly did the taxpayer pay for? if not looking for facts and truth?”
And, he added, “To have a comment like that brought forward by an integrity commissioner investigating somebody to me is unconscionable.”
Later in the report, Abrams/Atwood-Petkovski state: “The burden of proof which must be met is ‘a balance of probabilities,’ meaning that it is ‘more likely than not’ that the events transpired as alleged. This is a lower threshold than the criminal standard of proof ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’.”
Problems in the process were identified by many of those present, from the targeted councillors to members of the public.
These included the fact that Hanna and the two other councillors were not given full disclosure of the accusations made against them and that Brindley’s complaint against Hanna, initially relating only to the barbecue comment, was expanded later in the process to include further accusations, without appropriate notice.
The report is far from even-handed and gives an incomplete account of events. It is prosecutorial rather than judicious.
It fails to state that Hanna denied making the comments. It fails to mention other information he communicated in his defence.
It presents as fact the version of the conversation Abrams/Atwood-Petkovski say they received from unnamed witnesses. It does not present the conflicting version offered to them, and now to the public, by the three members of council.
It states Hanna “rebuffed” Abrams/Atwood-Pekovski’s request to meet with him and so denied them an opportunity to understand his perspective when in fact he provided his perspective in writing through lengthy email correspondence. It also fails to mention the relevant detail that his lawyer had advised him not to meet with them without legal representation, which would have been a major expense for him.
Abrams/Atwood-Petkovski found it “more likely than not” that Hanna made the comments and accepted the word of the anonymous witnesses (who did not file the complaint) over that of three members of council.
One of the three, Hanna, is a respected council veteran; the other two have shown themselves to be hardworking and independent-minded in their first year on council.
The complaint was trivial. The consultants are high-priced. The process is flawed (it is a basic tenet of common law that an accused person has the right to hear the accusation and face the witness).
No member of the public expressed support for the exercise. “The taxpayers of Springwater Township have absolutely no stomach for more costs with the integrity commissioners,” Springwater farmer John Spring told council.
“We’ve seen this happen in the past and council should be made aware that taxpayers in Springwater have had it with the costs that are associated with this, I’d like to say, witch-hunt,” Spring added, to applause.
Spring, by the way, has been on the warpath all year with regard to the paving of the gravelled portion of the concession road near his farm, which was dropped from the township’s to-do list. Wednesday, a majority of council voted to use gas tax funds to pave “his” road.
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Previously, on the AWARE Simcoe website: