Powassan council advised not to sanction councillor

·5 min read

POWASSAN - A lawyer is recommending Powassan council not impose sanctions on Coun. Debbie Piekarski and that council should not endorse the findings in a code of conduct report by Integrity Commissioner David King. Piekarski hired H.G. Elston, after King concluded Piekarski unnecessarily cast aspersions on arena operations staff and also did not enhance public confidence in how Powassan's arenas are being managed. The findings relate to a Dec. 7 council meeting where arena operations were being discussed. After that meeting Powassan businessman Evan Hughes filed a complaint alleging that during the meeting Piekarski said council should review all arena ice rentals to ensure staff are renting them out properly. Hughes also said Piekarski suggested staff were renting ice time at preferential rates to some users and not others. Hughes claimed Piekarski's words were a contravention of the municipality’s code of conduct. In his complaint to King, Hughes said the word “preferential” as used by Piekarski was troublesome because “it clearly suggests that staff are corrupt in their positions.” Hughes asked how a leader in the community could suggest staff were not being honest without any evidence to back up the claim. In her response to King, which he included in his report, Piekarski said she made the comments attributed to her at the meeting because members of the community had told her arena staff were charging them different rates for ice rentals. Piekarski told King her comments at the meeting “were entirely appropriate” because council had formed a special committee to examine how to save money at the arenas and Piekarski said the rental rate structure fell within the special committee's mandate. Piekarski also said council had a responsibility to talk about what the special committee would be studying. At the April 19 regular council meeting, Piekarski explained how the arena staff arrive at the different rates and that this matter was discussed at an arena meeting. “The arena manager indicated he does have different rates if he has someone who is coming in late at night and is piggy-backing off another rental,” Piekarski told council. “And he (the arena manager) will look favourably at that situation.” In his report to council, King sided with Hughes and ruled Piekarski “did not exercise reasonable care or diligence when commenting about arena operations.” King also ruled Piekarski's comments “did not enhance public confidence in local government or council-staff relations.” However, King found there was no evidence to suggest Piekarski engaged in an abuse of power, nor did she discriminate, intimidate, harass, verbally abuse or treat others adversely. King noted there are two possible sanctions on the issue. A council can either reprimand a council member or suspend the member's council pay for up to 90 days. King recommended the reprimand. That didn't sit well with the other members of council. “I'm not prepared to reprimand a fellow councillor,” said Coun. Dave Britton. “It shouldn't be part of our mandate.” Mayor Peter McIsaac called the situation “uncomfortable” and added the nature of the punishment should not have to be decided by council. In a four-page letter to council, Elston said his client “was, to say the least, taken aback by the findings of the report and is concerned about the serious damage to her reputation should its findings be endorsed by council.” Elston acknowledged code of conduct inquiries and their eventual findings can be difficult and that he has the “utmost respect for Commissioner King.” But Elston said King's report contained several legal errors. Elston said the errors were so serious the council should not endorse the findings and should not sanction his client. In one section of the letter, Elston, says there is no basis to conclude Piekarski “did not exercise reasonable care and diligence or that she acted in a way that damaged public confidence in local government.” In fact Elston said one can make the argument that by raising the issue of ice rental rates, Pierkarski “was calling for transparency and accountability.” Elston says these are two “ingredients necessary to ensure confidence in local government” and as a member of council, Piekarski had a responsibility to ask the questions she did, especially considering it was local residents who expressed their concerns to her over how ice rates were being applied. Elston says during the December meeting, Piekarski asked her questions in a reasonable and respectful way without disparaging staff and added even King concluded in his report that there was no abuse of power or that the councillor discriminated, intimidated, harassed, verbally abused or treated anyone adversely. Elston also disagreed with King's findings that Piekarski, without any factual information, cast aspersions on arena staff and that she did not enhance public confidence in how Powassan's arenas are managed. Elston says this finding by King is inconsistent with his later conclusion that Piekarski did not verbally abuse or mistreat anyone. He claims the report against Piekarski does not “provide a logical connection between the verdict and the basis for the verdict.” To illustrate his point, Elston notes on one hand King acknowledges it's the “role of a councillor to express an opinion or engage in debate on municipal operations.” But Elston says King concludes “in this instance” Piekarski's questions did not enhance confidence in local government. Elston says the phrase “in this instance” suggests to him King seems to be acting in an arbitrary manner because Piekarski is now the exception to how a councillor should engage in debate. Elston concludes his letter by noting that under section 223.4(1) of the Municipal Act, a council has the discretion not to penalize a council member even if an integrity commissioner concludes the member contravened the code of conduct. An integrity commissioner's report is final with no appeal. Elston urged the council to reject King's findings. Instead, council voted to receive King's report and Elston's letter, taking no further action on the matter. But the door was left open for the issue to potentially come back to council at some future time to bring final closure to the matter.

Rocco Frangione is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the North Bay Nugget. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The North Bay Nugget

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