A report by Centre Wellington’s integrity commissioner that found a councillor with anti-lockdown views did not breach council’s code of conduct will cost the township at least $21,000.
At Monday’s council meeting, at least one councillor defended the decision to ask for the report, calling it "money well spent," while others suggested it a waste of taxpayer dollars.
Township clerk Kerri O’Kane told council she had received invoices in the amount of $21,104 so far for the report, but she “fully expect(s) other invoices to come in.”
Council asked the integrity commissioner to launch an investigation into VanLeeuwen’s conduct at a February meeting where councillors also voted to remove him as deputy mayor. VanLeeuwen had founded the End the Lockdowns National Caucus, along with four other Canadian politicians, earlier that month.
While it was Mayor Kelly Linton who made the initial motion to have VanLeeuwen removed as deputy mayor — which is an appointed, not elected position — Linton, along with councillors Neil Dunsmore and Ian MacRae opposed the idea of asking for an integrity commissioner report on his conduct.
Meanwhile councillors Bob Foster, Stephen Kitras and Kirk McElwain wanted an investigation.
On Monday, Linton said council had decided “to spend $21,000 for the integrity commissioner to basically tell us months later in a report, what I told council he was going to say anyway.”
Linton said the commissioner had told him from the outset, the decision to remove VanLeeuwen as deputy mayor was a political one that council had the right to make and he would not comment on. The commissioner also made it clear in previous reports “he’s not going to police freedom of expression and political talk,” said Linton.
“We should have learned our lesson after the first time we went to the integrity commissioner how he interprets his role," Linton said. "And again he’s made it very very clear, unfortunately it was at the cost of the taxpayer in this case.”
Dunsmore addressed his comments toward Coun. Bob Foster, who made the motion to have VanLeeuwen investigated along with removing him as deputy mayor.
“Always when we (as council) go to spend money, you’ve got something to say,” Dunsmore said. “Well here you go, there’s $21,000 you spent needlessly.”
Foster responded he had asked for the integrity commissioners report, which took seven months to complete, because he did not want VanLeeuwen to be removed as deputy mayor “until he had the benefit of a fair trial.”
“Justice and fairness, Neil, cost money sometimes,” Foster said. “That was money well spent and Steve’s now been exonerated.”
Foster made a motion “to right a wrong,” calling for VanLeeuwen to be reinstated as deputy mayor. Because the appointment of a deputy mayor requires the consent of the mayor, Linton ruled it out of order.
Coun. Stephen Kitras also wanted VanLeeuwen reinstated, saying he had been a victim of “mob hysteria” and “political opportunism.”
“This is the second time in this term councillors have sought to punish unjustly a councillor in minority for the freedom of speech and opinion on a topic,” said Kitras, who was the subject of an integrity commissioner investigation launched by Linton in 2019.
Kitras also attempted to make a motion that “specific members that wrongly accused VanLeeuwen apologize to him at this meeting.” That motion was not heard.
Meanwhile the subject of the investigation, VanLeeuwen, said he was thankful to have the report, although he had not asked for it.
“It clearly shows that I had conducted myself properly and with integrity,” he said.
VanLeeuwen encouraged the public to read the report, particularly its analysis of his social media posts.
“You can see what you’re not seeing in the mainstream media,” he said. “And I think that’s very, very important.”
VanLeeuwen said he “would love to continue to act as deputy mayor,” but he couldn’t do that if the position held him back from walking with integrity or speaking the truth.
Alison Sandstrom, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, GuelphToday.com