At the South Algonquin Township council Nov. 1 meeting, Councillor Joe Florent apologized for breaches he made to the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act and the Code of Conduct as found by the Integrity Commissioner, Tony Fleming from Cunningham Swan Lawyers. Fleming presented his report on Florent’s breaches to the MCIA and the Municipal Code of Conduct to council at their Oct. 4 meeting, in accordance with section 223.6(1) of the Municipal Act.
Florent apologized for breaching the MCIA and the Code of Conduct at the Nov. 1 meeting of South Algonquin council. At the October meeting, Fleming presented his findings that Florent had breached the MCIA and the Code of Conduct by participating in a discussion for funding at the March 1 meeting regarding the Flyer Feathers Archery Club, of which Florent is secretary-treasurer. Thus, Fleming found he had a pecuniary interest and should have recused himself from any discussion on the matter. Fleming told council on Oct. 4 that the benefit of township financial funding was to the club but also by extension to Florent, as an active member of said club. While Florent did declare a conflict of interest in this matter, he proceeded to partake in the discussion that followed, contrary to the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, section 5 (1) (b), and the Code of Conduct, rule 1 (1) and rule 1 (2).
Fleming said the mitigating or confounding factor was that township staff told Florent that he could partake in these discussions, which was inaccurate. Fleming said the MCIA was very clear; once a conflict is identified and declared, a member cannot participate in any way or attempt to influence the vote in any way. He further added that his office had given Florent advice in advance of the meeting (on Nov. 23, 2022) that there was a pecuniary interest, and that he should refrain from participating in any discussions on funding, so he was well aware of it.
This matter was not referred to the courts, as Fleming did not deem it serious enough, but that it be dealt with by council under the Code of Conduct. Fleming further added that because staff had advised that Florent could answer questions, but there was no attempt to influence the vote and he was simply replying to questions, financial sanctions were also not appropriate in these circumstances. However, he recommended a public apology be issued by Florent to ensure the public understands that what Florent did was inappropriate and to rehabilitate the integrity of the process. Council accepted this recommendation for penalty.
The Ontario MCIA came into effect in 1983, replacing conflict legislation passed over a decade before that. The Act require local government representatives to disclose pecuniary interests and to abstain from decision making on matters on which they have these financial interests. These interests fall into three categories; direct interest, indirect interest or deemed (family) interest. In addition, there are exempt interests, including two general exemptions; a pecuniary interest which is common with electors in general, and a pecuniary interest that is so remote or insignificant that it cannot reasonably be regarded as likely influencing the member. There are at least five legal responsibilities that come up when a member has a pecuniary interest, compelling them to do the following; disclose the general nature of the interest before any discussion occurs, not participate in the discussion, not attempt to influence the discussion, not vote and if it’s a closed meeting, leave said meeting.
Fleming told The Bacnroft Times on Nov. 6 that complaints to the Integrity Commissioner are not anonymous and that he requires the name of the complainant as part of the process. “However, the Municipal Act requires that the Integrity Commissioners keep confidential the investigation process, and in most cases, this includes the name of the complainant. If it is necessary for the member of council to properly defend themselves to know who the complainant is, in those specific circumstances we would disclose the name, with the complainant knowing in advance we were doing so,” he says. More information on the Ontario MCIA can be found at www.ontario.ca/laws/statute/90m50. For more information on the South Algonquin Municipal Code of Conduct, go to www.southalgonquin.ca.
Florent made his public apology at the Nov. 1 meeting at the invitation of Mayor Ethel LaValley. He began by recalling the work he’d done over the last seven decades volunteering, and serving the public, including but not limited to, being a councillor in South Algonquin from 1998 to 2000 and after a six-year hiatus, from 2006 to the present day, a cumulative total of 19 years and counting. “In all that time in the service of the public, it is inevitable that I would make an error in judgement. I’ve likely made a lot more than one. Having an Integrity Commissioner is a relatively new process in municipal government and that’s a good thing. Everyone should be held accountable for their actions,” he says.
Florent said that at the March 1 meeting, after filing the appropriate paperwork and notifying council he had a pecuniary interest on a motion to be addressed that day, he did speak on the staff report after being advised by CAO Bryan Martin that he could do so. “The Integrity Commissioner acknowledges that I acted on the incorrect advice of the CAO and that I only provided information and answered questions as posed by council. He also acknowledges that I did not argue for or against the motion. He also acknowledges that I did not vote on the issue. It was only my intent to clarify the staff report. It was my intention to provide information to enable council to make a more informed decision. It appears that under the current rules and regulations, that’s a bad thing. Nevertheless, I am guilty as per the findings of the Integrity Commissioner. I should have known better and for that I apologize to the council, the staff and to the citizens of the Township of South Algonquin,” he says.
Martin apologized to Florent for the misinformation he provided at the March 1 meeting, in advising him that he could participate in the discussion. Florent replied that with all the experience he has he probably should have known better.
LaValley thanked Florent for his apology and said she hoped that they can move forward and do what they were all elected to do; to work on behalf of the citizens of South Algonquin. “I just want to commend council for the work they’re doing. I said in another report and I’ll say it again, I don’t think any of us ran for council to deceive our citizens, our taxpayers and those that elected us,” she says. “We’re in a learning experience and hopefully as we move forward in the next year, we’ll all do better and we’ll serve those citizens who elected us.”
Michael Riley, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Bancroft Times