Township to Foot Oro-Medonte Councillor’s $8K Legal Bill
Oro-Medonte council members are shown during a meeting Wednesday.
From Orillia Matters June 11 2021
By Nathan Taylor
At tumultuous meeting, councillor accused his colleagues of ‘writing policy on the fly, which is not only reckless, but it’s irresponsible governance’
An Oro-Medonte councillor who violated the township’s code of conduct will have her legal expenses covered.
During a meeting Wednesday, council discussed the request from Coun. Cathy Keane.
“In light of fulfilling my duties as a member of Oro-Medonte Council, I respectfully request support for legal expenses in accordance with By-law No. 2020-010,” Keane wrote.
Following a three-month investigation, Principles Integrity, the township’s integrity commissioner (IC) at the time, recommended Keane be formally reprimanded by council, saying she “attempted to obfuscate and obstruct” the probe that was sparked by a complaint from the Horseshoe Valley Property Owners Association (HVPOA).
The group said Keane had taken part in and voted during its annual general meeting.
When questioned by the integrity commissioner about who provided her with a USB containing a recording of that meeting, Keane expressed concern about divulging the name of the “friend/acquaintance,” worrying it might violate privacy rules in the code of conduct.
Principles Integrity issued a summons to have Keane testify under oath. It was then that Keane said her husband had recorded the meeting and she viewed it later.
Keane hired a lawyer, and it was those legal fees — $8,271.60 — that she was asking council to pay for Wednesday.
Coun. Shawn Scott introduced a motion, calling on council to support Keane’s request for legal expenses up to that amount and that the expenses be funded from “potential surpluses from council remuneration accounts of 2021 and ’22 if necessary.” He asked council members to not use all of the expenses they’re allowed to use.
“This gesture of support by my colleagues could also help in unifying council members going forward, again, while not affecting the taxpayer, but rather the individual councillor,” Scott said.
Coun. Tammy DeSousa was on board with the plan, thanking Scott for coming up with a “solution that protects our taxpayers from this expense.”
“It’s almost ingenious that you’ve found a way to satisfy the rights and needs of Coun. Keane … and divert that expense from the taxpayers and onto her colleagues,” she said.
Coun. Randy Greenlaw wasn’t having it.
“To ask me to forfeit money out of this year’s budget to subsidize something that I think was improper and against the code of conduct, as identified by the integrity commissioner, I’m not willing to do that. I think that’s me rewarding someone who has not complied with the code of conduct and changed her story and lied to the IC …” he said before being interrupted by Mayor Harry Hughes, who said individual councillors would have the choice of whether to “forego” their approved expenses.
Coun. Ian Veitch worried a decision to cover Keane’s legal expenses in that way “could set a precedent that we really don’t want to do.”
If an integrity commissioner finds a councillor’s conduct unbecoming in the future, “that’s not something that we want to promote or allow,” Veitch said.
DeSousa called a point of order — one of many raised during the meeting — to remind Veitch of a section of the code of conduct that states council shall “convey the position of council once a question has been decided, including when a member had a minority opinion, while demonstrating respect for democracy.”
“That debate and that decision has already been made as to the results of that IC report, which is no longer on the table,” she said of council’s decision May 26 to not reprimand Keane.
“The councillor has not been exonerated,” Veitch responded, noting Scott’s motion on May 26 to exonerate Keane was defeated because of a 3-3 vote — a decision that was followed by a vote to cut ties with Principles Integrity.
“There is no minority opinion because they were equal.”
The suggestion to use the bylaw pertaining to council members’ allotted expenses to cover Keane’s legal fees was also called into question.
Nowhere in the bylaw is it stated expenses can be used for legal fees, Greenlaw said.
However, Scott pointed out, it does note “eligible expenses include but are not limited to …”
If the bylaw were meant to be used for legal purposes, it would have been mentioned, Greenlaw countered.
“That’s not an oversight. It’s not in there because there’s other ways for legal fees to be paid,” he said.
If council feels it needs to amend the bylaw to include legal fees, he said, a motion to that effect should be brought to the next meeting.
“Otherwise, we’re writing policy on the fly, which is not only reckless, but it’s irresponsible governance,” he said.
Greenlaw and Veitch also weren’t buying the argument that going that route to pay for Keane’s expenses wouldn’t cost the taxpayers.
“There’s multiple ways to cook an egg, but at the end of the day, the money being used out of council’s expense account is taxpayers’ money,” Greenlaw said.
Hughes told him the amount of money being used to cover the legal fees wouldn’t be more than what councillors would have been allotted for expenses anyway. He said there would be “no net negative impact on the taxpayer.”
Greenlaw responded: “Those funds are given to us to help provide our services to the taxpayers, so we’re taking money away from that.”
“This is taxpayer money, however you phrase it. You can’t hide it,” he said.
The two councillors ended up on the losing side of a 4-2 vote. Keane did note vote or take part in the discussion about her request.
DeSousa, Hughes, Hough and Scott voted in favour of Scott’s motion.
“I actually believe that Coun. Keane was acting in what she believed was the best interests of the township,” Hough said, despite acknowledging she “was not totally honest with the integrity commissioner.”
HVPOA official blasts Keane, mayor
At the beginning of Wednesday’s meeting, in the open forum, council heard from HVPOA vice-president Sonia Faryna.
Keane, she noted, said she obtained a lawyer at her own expense because she was concerned about breaching privacy regulations.
“Was she concerned about fulfilling her duty as a member of council to respect privacy when she allowed her husband to use her personal email to join and vote in our annual general meeting and record it without consent?” Faryna asked.
Not until the integrity commissioner asked how she got the recording did Keane become concerned about privacy, she added.
“How ironic to claim to be concerned about fulfilling her duty with respect to privacy when she breached the privacy of a residents’ association.”
Faryna noted it was not a “neutral resident,” but rather Keane’s husband, who “trespassed on our meeting” and recorded it without consent.
She also pointed out Hughes provided the “private members-only access code” needed to join the meeting
Taxpayers should not have to foot Keane’s “personal legal bill for trying to hide her husband’s and the mayor’s involvement.”
She urged council to deny Keane’s request and asked Hughes to recuse himself from discussing the matter and voting on it, “given that your involvement in it appears to present a conflict of interest.”
Later in the meeting, Hughes addressed the criticism.
He said the integrity commissioner’s report found “nothing improper about the practice of circulating information, provided it was not marked private or privileged, and that this practice had been taking place for more than a decade as a co-operative communication partnership between the members of the Horseshoe Valley Property Owners Association to ensure that residents throughout the township are aware of events or open invitations to township residents, especially when the township taxpayers contribute money to those functions.”
“I was not aware that the current executive has withdrawn the welcome mat,” he added.
“Now that I know that, I will discontinue that practice.”
See the article from Orillia Matters here
See the article from Barrie Today here
Read the main article: Oro-Medonte councillor violated code of conduct: Integrity Commissioner
Watch the Council meeting here