Council showed bias against Rick Chiarelli, court finds

·3 min read
Most councillors stood for at least part of a December 2019 council meeting to protest Coun. Rick Chiarelli. This week, a panel of Superior Court justices found that showed council was biased against Chiarelli. (Kate Porter/CBC - image credit)
Most councillors stood for at least part of a December 2019 council meeting to protest Coun. Rick Chiarelli. This week, a panel of Superior Court justices found that showed council was biased against Chiarelli. (Kate Porter/CBC - image credit)

A panel of judges has found that city council was biased against Coun. Rick Chiarelli and has thrown out council's decision to dock the College ward representative's salary for 270 days over his "sexist" and "disgraceful conduct," according to an Ontario Superior Court ruling released late Wednesday.

And in the same decision, the judges themselves re-imposed the 270-day salary suspension.

In practical terms, nothing much changes for Chiarelli. The judges — Justices David Corbett, Geoffrey Morawetz and Robyn Ryan Bell — agreed with the findings of the integrity commissioner's investigation into Chiarelli's conduct and imposed the maximum penalty available.

But the ruling does confirm Chiarelli's argument that his council colleagues showed they had a "closed mind" against him when Mayor Jim Watson and a number of other elected officials called on him to resign, and when most council members stood in protest at a public meeting, months before the investigation findings were made public.

A CBC investigation in the fall of 2019 spoke to many women who accused the councillor of inappropriate behaviour and reported the experiences of eight of them. The women said they were asked questions, told stories and shown pictures that were inappropriate and sexual in nature.

Three female job applicants made official complaints to then-integrity commissioner Robert Marleau, who found in a July 2020 report the councillor contravened the code of conduct and that his behaviour had been "offensive and disreputable," qualifying as harassment under the city's policies.

Marleau recommended Chiarelli be docked nine months' pay — 90 days for each complainant, the most severe penalty available under law — and council approved the recommendation.

Last year, Chiarelli's lawyer Bruce Sevigny, filed for a judicial review of the report, arguing, among other things, that council was biased, and that the integrity commissioner did not have the authority to investigate the complaints against Chiarelli, and that Marleau didn't accommodate the councillor's health issues.

The councillor did not dispute, or even address, the findings of the integrity commissioner's report during the one-day judicial review hearing last May.

This week, the three-judge panel has dismissed outright all of Chiarelli's arguments against the integrity commissioner, stating the women's "complaints all fall squarely in the jurisdiction of the commissioner." The judges also found that Marleau "reasonably accommodated" Chiarelli's health issues.

However, the judges took issue with council's behaviour toward Chiarelli before the integrity report was released in July 2020.

Councillors calling for his resignation, refusing to sit with him, "and the absence of their commitment to set aside their preconceptions" showed bias, the Superior Court judges found.

In fact, council was reminded by the city solicitor of its obligation to appear neutral in advance of the meeting where they all stood. Only Councillors Theresa Kavanagh, council's special liaison on women and gender equity, Jan Harder and the mayor stayed seated. Watson later said he was standing "in spirit."

The judges did not fault council for denying Chiarelli's request for a leave of absence or for expressing support for the women who came forward to make complaints, but found that council members did not act properly in their role as adjudicators in this instance. While the integrity commissioner recommends sanctions, the final decision on whether to approve them rests with council.

Giacomo Panico/CBC
Giacomo Panico/CBC

Chiarelli out $20K

The judges explained in a case where bias was found, the issue would normally go back to a new decision-maker. But since the same council would be the decision-maker in this case, the court found that inappropriate, and took it upon itself to decide the appropriate sanction itself.

The court agreed with Marleau, and instated the maximum penalty for Chiarelli's "pattern of sexist harassment that demeaned the complainants who were seeking employment in his office."

The judges ordered the city to pay Chiarelli $20,000 in legal costs, but only after Chiarelli pays $40,000 in costs to the integrity commissioner.

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