Every once in a while issues arise that underscore the potential perils that can ensue from the fact that Burlington has one of the smallest municipal councils for a community of its size in Ontario. Burlington has a seven-member council. By comparison, Oakville has 15, Milton 9, Brantford has 11. In Kitchener Waterloo where like Halton, two-tier government exists, Waterloo has an eight-member council and Kitchener 11. In Niagara, another two-tier jurisdiction, St Catharines has 13 members and Niagara Falls 9.
The issue arose in Burlington last month when a majority of councillors-four out of seven– had to admit that they had received campaign contributions from one or both parties in a dispute that was being adjudicated by the integrity commissioner. We thank the Burlington Gazette for bringing this to our attention.
The issue was a complaint by a resident that she had been mistreated by a member of the Burlington Committee of adjustment. The resident had applied for a zoning variance that would allow her to build a residential unit in the garage on her property. At the hearing one member of the committee, said he had heard from neighbours that the resident had already constructed a second dwelling unit in her basement, something she vigorously denied. The member went on to question the integrity of the planners the resident had hired who testified that there was no rental unit in the basement.
As the integrity commissioner was providing her report, she was interrupted by members of council who started questioning their own potential for conflict of interest in the matter. It turned out that councillors, Galbraith, Kearns and Nisan as well as Mayor Meed Ward had all received campaign donations from the Committee of adjustment member who was being investigated. The integrity commissioner had earlier told councillors that receiving a campaign donation was not grounds for a conflict of interest. But in the case of the mayor, she had not only received donations from both parties but considered both parties to be close friends.” Said Meed ward, “I am formally declaring my commitment to maintain an open mind on the matters before us…turning to the integrity commissioner she asked, “ does a personal friendship over and above a campaign donation, since I have one with both the complainant and the respondent, require me to recuse myself from this matter?”
The answer, “Uh yes, Madam Mayor…it would.”
With that, the mayor relinquished the chair and gavel to councillor Kearns, but who, in addition to disclosing the aforementioned donation from the respondent, said she had also received a campaign donation from the complainant in the 2018 election. However, Kearns said, despite the campaign donations, she did not have a friendship with either of the parties, and therefore considered herself able to judge the matter fairly.
As to the Integrity Commissioner report, while finding the respondent had breached the Code of Conduct covering such committees she recommended no action against the committee member, suggesting the investigation in itself would hopefully serve as a deterrent in future. The upshot of it all was that the integrity Commissioner, who also serves as Hamilton’s integrity commissioner, will be engaged to conduct training sessions for members of local boards.
You left out the best part. As a member of the committee of adjustment the respondent is prohibited from making contributions to any campaign. The respondent took a leave of absence from the committee to work on the election, and be able to contribute to the candidates. Apparently this is allowed and makes everything ethical.
My question is why was the mayor allowed to chair the first half of the meeting, and allow multiple questions to the respondent, from herself and other council members, giving him the opportunity to speak for about an hour, and only recused herself due to conflict once the Integrity Commissioner came up to the podium and the whole mess was brought up by the Commissioner and Councillor Kearns, if I recall correctly? Are we supposed to believe nobody had a concern about that at the beginning? The Mayor as Chair never thought of asking before the meeting began? The Clerk?
And let’s remember this “integrity commissioner” is paid by and hired by the City. It’s not some higher provincial power; is it really that different from any other paid consultant? It does come in handy when council members can say things like “I’ve been cleared by the Integrity Commissioner” or “She was found by the Integrity Commissioner to have breached a rule” or my new favourite “I checked with the Integrity Commissioner myself and it’s all ok – no conflict.” Sounds more impressive than “I checked with the consultants we pay.”
In my count, and in my opinion, it’s 0 for 3 in rulings for Burlington that I’ve seen. Though the report in this matter was scathing. The recommendation at the end seemed to many to be very much at odds with the language in the report and the presentation by the Integrity Commission rep at the meeting.
The fact that the Mayor advised that she could ‘keep an open mind despite a close friendship with the respondent’ and did not automatically declare a conflict is nothing more than typical Meed Ward theatre. As a politician of many years she is well aware, or should be, when a conflict exists. Actually, senior civil servants are counselled that if they perceive that there might be a conflict, there is a conflict. In this area, perception is reality and you always err on the side of caution. The fact that this Council seems to have a very difficult time graspoing that fundamental concept is disappointing at best and deceptive at worst.
I’m not sure why the name of the CoA member is not mentioned here nor in previous Spectator coverage by Joan Little. It is public information, available on the City website in the meeting agenda and minutes. It is also clearly featured in the Burlington Gazette that reported extensively on the matter. The link to the final Gazette article follows.
I didn’t have the name of the complainant. Both or neither.
Well, if the Burlington CoA posted their membership, agenda and minutes clearly on the City website, as they should, you would have.