Councillors taking a stand on Chiarelli, the only way they can

Councillors taking a stand on Chiarelli, the only way they can

It was a protest unprecedented at Ottawa city hall.

It didn't come from activists — they were there in the council chamber, too — but from city councillors who stood leaning over their chair backs, their laptops perched atop overturned recycling bins as they attended to Wednesday's hefty council agenda, which included approving a multi-billion-dollar budget.

They stayed standing, some for hours, because their colleague, Coun. Rick Chiarelli, was at the table, too.

When Chiarelli last attended council on Nov. 6 — his first appearance since CBC reported allegations of his inappropriate behaviour and comments toward former staff members and job applicants — Coun. Jenna Sudds stood the whole meeting.

Kate Porter/CBC

It was only later that anyone realized she'd been acting in solidarity with the women who had come forward to complain about Chiarelli's alleged behaviour, which included driving a staffer to a Gatineau strip club to "spy" on another councillor, and asking women to go braless to work event. Chiarelli has denied all the allegations.

This week, most of Sudds's council colleagues joined her.

Uncharted territory

Wednesday's silent protest spoke volumes.

There's never been an instance when Ottawa city councillors have so publicly, so uniformly, displayed their discontent with a colleague. Then again, councillors have been in uncharted territory from the moment the Chiarelli allegations surfaced and they were left to deal with the fallout.

In October, they were faced with his request for an indefinite leave of absence, which came after CBC's extensive reporting of the allegations against him, including from three named former staff members.

Council made the unusual decision to deny Chiarelli leave, despite a doctor's note advising the councillor should be off until Dec. 1. (Technically, councillors don't deny a colleague medical leave —  they only decide whether to grant an exemption to the provincial rule that states a councillor must show up to a council meeting at least once every three months.)

It was likely an awkward position for councillors, who weren't supposed to take news reports about the allegations against Chiarelli into account when they made their decision.

CBC

On Wednesday, councillors found themselves in another tricky spot.

They didn't want to act as if Chiarelli's presence was business as usual, or somehow indicate a willingness to endure his alleged behaviour, but they also had to be careful not to imply he's guilty without due process.

Some spoke with the city clerk, who advised individual councillors to make sure they appeared "neutral" about the allegations, so as not to appear to be influencing integrity commissioner Robert Marleau's investigation of a number of formal complaints against the councillor.

Coun. Theresa Kavanagh took that advice to heart and decided against standing with her colleagues, exposing her to so much criticism on social media that she later issued a statement explaining her reasons.

Treading a fine line

Mayor Jim Watson also sat, but later said it was because he has too many documents to handle during a meeting to do the job standing. In French, he later said he'd been "standing in spirit."

The rest of council felt the "stand-in" allowed them to register their support for the women who have come forward — CBC has corroborated the allegations of 13 women, and reported the experiences of eight — and show Chiarelli they're unhappy with the whole situation, all without having to explicitly say anything about the veracity of the allegations.

As Coun. Mathieu Fleury put it, "We don't have the right tools to address the situation, but the stand-in speaks to how uncomfortable we are."

What the right "tools" are to deal with such alleged behaviour is unclear. The integrity commissioner's investigation — which is completely independent of council — seems like a good place to start. Neither council nor the city has the power to dismiss a councillor, and rightly so.

But there's nothing to stop councillors from expressing how they feel, even if taking a stand could potentially be interpreted as exerting moral pressure on Chiarelli to resign.

Kate Porter/CBC

Chiarelli staying

In fact, Chiarelli has shown no signs of going anywhere.

In a statement issued in October, he denied having harassed anyone or treating them in an "inappropriate 'gender-based' fashion." He blamed the allegations on a political conspiracy and "mob mentality" on the part of his accusers.

On Wednesday he reiterated his plan to challenge the integrity commissioner's authority to investigate the allegations against him — a process Chiarelli told reporters on Wednesday will be officially launched in the next few days.

Although he has said he's unwell, Chiarelli also said he hopes to start doing more constituency work. That's likely welcome news College ward residents, because Chiarelli will no longer be getting help from any of his colleagues.

On Wednesday, council unanimously approved a motion to relieve Coun. Scott Moffatt and Allan Hubley of their duties helping College ward residents while their councillor is away.

"The last couple of weeks it's become evident to me just through emails and through interactions with his office that Coun. Chiarelli has been working," Moffatt told reporters. "It's pretty clear that he's been able to respond to emails, be able to go to community events and come to the office."

 

Coun. Stephen Blais said he stood for the entire time Chiarelli was at the meeting because he "thought it was a very respectful way to show to show that were we're all concerned about the way this [has] all happened."

Blais shares Moffatt's view that Chiarelli must decide if he wants to remain on council, "but he can't have one foot in and one foot out."

It should soon become evident whether Chiarelli really is willing and able to resume his duties, but for now, the College ward councillor remains standing.