In response to a Freedom of Information request by the Bay Observer, the city has confirmed that a legal action stemming from a 2004 confrontation between Councillor Bernie Morelli and city taxi inspector Michael Francoeur, has cost the city $578,659 with further costs continuing to accumulate. As has been reported in previous Bay Observer articles, court documents indicate that in December 2004, Morelli received a complaint from a taxi operator friend that city taxi inspector Francoeur was being overzealous in pulling cabs off the road.

Sworn testimony describes a scene where Morelli appeared at the taxi inspector’s workplace, using obscene language and threatening Francoeur’s employment at one point saying “I’m your (expletive) boss, I can fire your (expletive) ass,” adding that he would have Francour “turfed out of this (expletive) office, so (expletive) fast, it will make your (expletive) head spin.” Morelli has in past denied using the language cited in the court documents, but admits it was a heated discussion.

By way of background, the 2004 incident came in the midst of a taxi safety blitz that was being carried out jointly by police, MTO and the city in response to numerous complaints about aging and rundown taxis in Hamilton. Cab drivers were angry at the crackdown and at one point picketed City Hall with their cabs. Taxi inspectors were being threatened. It was a tense environment with even then Mayor Larry DiIanni’s driver threatening taxi inspectors on behalf of his brother who drove a cab. The Morelli exchange ultimately led to the firing of two city licensing managers, but in the logic applied in the aftermath of the incident, Tom Redmond and Randy Charlton who were not present at the incident, were fired, apparently for not adequately defending Francoeur against Morelli, as well as for a series of subsequent events that Francoeur alleged were systematic acts of harassment.

The most serious of these, with which Redmond and Charlton had no involvement, was the carrying out of Morelli’s threat to have Francoeur removed from his job. A few months after the confrontation, Morelli seconded a motion by seatmate Sam Merulla to require that taxi inspections be performed by licensed mechanics, effectively disqualifying Francoeur from his job. Redmond and Charlton say they recommended in writing exactly the opposite with regard to using licensed mechanics but their report was altered by higher-ups. Francour subsequently lodged a formal complaint alleging that in addition to losing his job, he was subjected to other incidents that he considered to be harassing in nature; but strangely in the descriptions of 19 incidents alleged as harassment there is little to indicate direct actions by Randy Charlton and Tom Redmond. In one instance, to quote court documents, Redmond addressed Francoeur “in a tone that the complainant thought showed anger,” over the purchase of a trouble light.

In another instance Francoeur says he was spoken to disparagingly by a citizen with connections to the taxi industry and reported it to Charlton and that “there was no evidence that anything was done about this…” On the other hand, Francoeur admits that at one point Redmond wrote a letter to angry taxi owners setting out ground rules for their behavior when undergoing inspections. In the investigation that followed Francoeur’s complaint, Charlton and Redmond say they were subjected to an unfair and prejudicial investigation process. A Toronto fact-Finder Anne Grant was brought in to conduct the investigation. Court documents say the two managers were not told their conduct was under investigation nor that the investigation could lead to terminations. They did not have counsel present and were not allowed to take notes of the interviews with Grant.

Ultimately, Grant issued almost identical letters to Redmond and Charlton reading in part, “the evidence supports a finding that you breached the Personal Harassment Prevention Policy (of the city) by bullying Mr. Francoeur and abusing your authority in your dealings with the Complainant.” Two weeks later the two were fired . In a bewildering demonstration of the differential standards applied to the councillor whose actions triggered the fiasco and the two managers; their letters of dismissal cited the fact that after losing his job as taxi inspector, Francoeur was reassigned to a job in Morelli’s Ward 3. The city has a yard on Wentworth Street. The letter said, “the decision to assign (Francoeur) to this (Morelli’s) ward can only be perceived as an attempt to coerce and intimidate the complainant.” All of this took place more than six years ago.

In a statement issued when the lawsuit was launched Charlton said, “We were judged by a different standard than councillor Morelli who suffered no consequences from his intemperate act which led to our dismissal,” adding in their statement of claim, “The real perpetrator of harassment against Francoeur was… city Counsellor Morelli.” Since losing their jobs Redmond and Charlton have accepted lower level jobs in neighbouring municipalities while pursuing first, an attempt to have a judicial review look into their firings, and then the present wrongful dismissal suit, which is currently in mediation. Defending both of these actions has resulted in the $578,000 legal tab the City paid to Hamilton law firm Gowlings thus far. In addition there is the cost of the Anne Grant report that was cited in the firings.

The Bay Observer has filed another FOI request to obtain that figure. Finally, should the matter result in a settlement, depending on what is agreed upon, there will almost certainly be additional costs including Redmond and Charlton’s legal fees and whatever indemnification they might receive for their personal losses. Their suit is seeking $6.7 million. On the other hand, if the matter is not resolved and goes to court, the city’s lawyers have said they will need five weeks of court time to set out their case, which would add significantly to the legal fees already expended. Redmond and Charlton’s lawyer James Fyshe, citing the fact that negotiations are underway, declined comment for this story. City council was made aware of the rising legal bill at a closed door session last year. Most of the same councillors were present six years ago when council unanimously refused to take any action against Morelli for the Francoeur incident.

Photo Credit: metronews.ca

John Best had enjoyed a lengthy media management career, in television and radio and now print. As Vice President, News at CHCH in Hamilton, John oversaw a significant expansion of the news operation. He founded Independent Satellite News, Canada’s only television news service providing national content to Canadian independent TV stations. John is a frequent political commentator on radio and television, a documentary producer and author of a book and numerous articles on historical and political subjects. John is a past recipient of the New York Festival’s award for writing in the International TV category.

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