'Hostile': Area politician reprimanded for conduct code violations

An “accusatory” text, sent to two colleagues in the wee hours of the morning.

A kerfuffle along a Toronto street, in which one of those same colleagues was allegedly grabbed by the arm, pulled aside and given a dressing down in front of others.

Elgin County’s top politician, Warden Ed Ketchabaw, has been dealt a reprimand by his council colleagues after an integrity watchdog found he twice violated the county’s code of conduct in his dealings with its former top bureaucrat, a chief administrative officer who quit within weeks of the incidents.

But while county council accepted integrity commissioner John Mascarin’s final report on his investigation into conduct complaints about Ketchabaw, including the reprimand, the politicians broke with his recommendation to also dock the warden 10 days’ pay – a fraction of the penalty the code allows.

“Basically, it would be a written reprimand because it’s written into the minutes,” Councillor Todd Noble told The Free Press. “It was a written reprimand without financial consequences."

Ketchebaw, a veteran of civic politics and the mayor of Bayham, said he’s glad the investigation is over but is unsatisfied with how it unfolded.

“No, I’m not happy that it went this route in the first place,” he said in an interview. “It is what it is.”

Julie Gonyou, the county’s former chief administrative officer, resigned early in May after nearly six years on the job in a departure Ketchebaw at the time called “a rather sudden resignation.”

A complaint was filed two days earlier with the integrity commissioner, including some allegations the watchdog found to be “hearsay." In the cases of the text and the street incident, however, Mascarin, a lawyer, found Ketchebaw violated the code’s sections against abusive and inappropriate workplace behaviour.

Mascarin’s report did not identify Gonyou by name, nor the complainant, and drew no firm conclusion about why the former bureaucrat left the job, noting the resignation letter referenced focusing on personal "health, safety and wellness following several weeks of very challenging circumstances.”

Still, Mascarin found a “reasonable basis” to suggest the street incident contributed to workplace concerns and that the former CAO felt “if not unsafe, at least vulnerable” in the warden’s presence.

At the heart of the investigation was an April 1 text Ketchewbaw sent to Gonyou and the deputy warden at 3:30 a.m., and an April 17 incident along a street in Toronto, where a group from the county was returning to an annual roads convention from lunch.

In the text, according to the report, the warden complained about feeling disrespected that a meeting he'd been invited to with the CAO and the deputy warden the day before had started, in his view, without him.

"Folks, I’ve been troubled all night and have to get this off my chest. . . . So the question for you both, is it the office of the Warden you disrespect, or just me in particular," the text read in part.

The integrity commissioner found the text contributed to an unsafe workplace, both in its accusatory nature and at the time it was sent.

The report came to a similar conclusion about the Toronto street incident, noting the warden had said he "guided" the former CAO out of pedestrian traffic to ask if there was a problem at the office but that a witness recalled the Gonyou being grabbed by the arm and pulled aside for what sounded like an "intense" conversation.

"We view the actions as hostile and aggressive," Mascarin's report concluded.

County council received the integrity commissioner's report last week without debate, with Ketchebaw publicly apologizing at the meeting.

“At the time of the incidents indicated within the report, I did not believe that I had crossed the line of inappropriate behaviour,” he said. “I acknowledge and accept the findings of the integrity commission. Further, I regret that it appears that I had, in fact, used poor judgment in my interactions with the former CAO on the two occasions noted within the report and I accept responsibility for my actions.”

In his report, the integrity commissioner noted the warden was "disappointed" that evidence he provided about the two incidents, which he stands by, did not align with what the investigation found and that his conduct "was no doubt clouded by stressors related to workplace matters."

The code of conduct allows for pay suspensions for violations of up to 90 days, but Mascarin's report found the circumstances called for a penalty on the lighter side.

Brian Williams, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press