Councillor says integrity commissioner 'weaponized' against him

Springwater Coun. Phil Fisher is no fan of the township’s integrity commissioner (IC).

At Wednesday night’s township council meeting, after listening to Robert Swayze deliver his report on three complaints his office received — two against Fisher, brought by fellow Coun. Brad Thompson and Springwater Public Library board chair Adrian Graham and one against Mayor Jennifer Coughlin, initiated by Fisher — Fisher didn’t hold back.

“I’m not sure even where to begin after that,” Fisher said after listening to Swayze deliver his integrity commissioner's report, for which he billed the township a little more than 109 hours of work, or approximately $30,000. “Mr. Swayze, I have to say, you have done a huge and costly disservice to this council and, in fact, I’m going to say, to myself.

“This entire report, although you say that no actual rule in the code (of conduct) has been contravened, I find this to be two-and-a-half pages of, I'll call it slander against myself, and I think it’s full of falsehoods," the councillor added. “To allow your office to be weaponized against a councillor like myself, doing my job, I'm amazed that you would do that."

In his report, Swayze said “none of these complaints require me to investigate on the basis of no actual rule in the code having been contravened,” but noted that the complainants all cited sections of the code which are general principles contained in the code.

“I must apply all of the principles and rules contained in the code, but cannot find an investigation solely on one or more principles,” Swayze added.

In his report, Swayze wrote that the City of Toronto faced a similar situation and he used the same legal advice that was provided to the city to help him in this case.

“We are of the view that the statement of principles in the code of conduct do not provide an independent or stand-alone set of obligations that you can deal with,” the legal advice stated. “In our view, your jurisdiction is limited to dealing with allegations of conduct contrary to the provisions of the code of conduct that proscribe certain specific kinds of behaviour.”

In the closing paragraph of his report, Swayze delivered a warning to Fisher.

“I warn him (Fisher) that if he continues with his aggressive approach, I will find that it amounts to harassment of other members of council and/or staff, which is a code rule,” Swayze wrote. “I will recommend the imposition of sanctions, such as a reprimand and the suspension of his council salary, to as much as 90 days.”

Fisher wasn’t the only member of council who took umbrage with Swayze’s report.

Deputy Mayor George Cabral said the report lacked the substance he was expecting. He said the document was far short of what other integrity commissioner reports he’s read contained and he was concerned about the process Swayze took to reach his conclusion.

Cabral noted a previous township integrity commissioner investigated “a fairly minor, suggested code of conduct breach” and that report was voluminous, with details on the investigation, who was spoken to and what came of those discussions.

“I just find it a little bit lacking that, no offense, but 109.5 hours and it appears, if I look at this correctly, that you spoke with maybe three or four people,” Cabral said.

Cabral said Swayze did not contact him regarding the allegation against Coughlin, and that surprised him.

“There was no outreach, there was no verification of facts, there was no speaking to other people that were involved in those specific incidents, at least that I'm aware of Mr. Swayze,” Cabral said. “I do struggle with your report and, I would have to say, I struggle with your analysis of all of them and I do believe you do this council a disservice."

Coughlin said she was also taken aback by Swayze’s report.

“I was a little surprised at the report. It was much different that reports that we have received on council before,” she said.

The mayor said she reached out to Swayze a couple of times regarding the process. She said she was concerned with the amount of time that had passed and she was concerned that billable hours were piling up.

“I actually said to Mr. Swayze, if the end result is going to be a public apology, just tell me and I’ll just do it at the next meeting and please stop billing us,” Coughlin said.

The mayor then apologized for her role in the debacle.

“I will apologize that $30,000 was spent and that my discretion had a portion to do with that,” Coughlin said. “I will apologize for the amount of money we have taken from taxpayers to deal with this.”

Coughlin’s apology was the only one going on the record.

Thompson sought one from Fisher, but was rebuffed.

According to Thompson’s complaint, Fisher was accused of publicly criticizing Thompson for attending the Rural Ontario Municipal Association (ROMA) conference in Toronto from Jan. 21-23 with his wife, going a day earlier, and using municipal dollars to pay for her stay.

Thompson vehemently denied the allegations.

“The evening that he accused myself, and my wife, of going away on taxpayers' dollars was very distributing to me,” Thompson said. “I wasn’t here (in council) and I needed the air cleared. Upon my return, I called him and asked him where he got his information; he said he assumed these things.

“When Mr. Swayze asked, he didn’t answer because he couldn’t — it was something he fabricated, something that was in his imagination, something he made up,” Thompson added.

Thompson said Fisher has known since February that Thompson did nothing wrong.

Fisher called Thompson’s concerns “theatrics.”

“As for me fabricating, I heard it from a source,” Fisher said.

Thompson responded that he thought it was “despicable” that Fisher brought his wife into the situation and chastised other members of council for remaining silent.

“Shame on us,” Thompson said. “Other council members, I called them all and they knew this was false. Shame on us for having to wait for an IC report to clear up this information.”

Finally, Thompson asked Fisher directly to recant the story and apologize.

“I’ve been waiting, my wife’s here tonight, and we’ve been waiting,” Thompson said. “What we’ve been looking for and hoping for from you is some acceptance that you made up the story and recanting the story and taking back the comments you made about us at ROMA, which we all know are untrue and an apology.

“I’ve been waiting since February. I need the public to know the truth,” he added.

“Coun. Thompson, when you phrase the question like that, how could I give you an apology, really?” Fisher responded. “When you’re asking the question, but you’re setting it up in such a way that you’re essentially asking me to admit to fabrication and lies.”

Thompson shook his head in the affirmative.

“That’s what you’re asking me to admit to?” Fisher asked. “Well, I'm sorry, you won’t get an apology from me like that. If you want to know that I received some false information, you know, ya, I did.

“But, If you want to phrase your question like that when you ask me, I won’t give you an apology," he added.

At that point, Thompson’s wife rose and left council chambers, appearing distraught that the accusation remained unaddressed.

Wayne Doyle, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter,