This article has been updated with a comment from the complainant and can be found in the final paragraph.
North Bay City Councillor Bill Vrebosch has been cleared of intimidation charges after an investigation by City of North Bay Integrity Commissioner Guy Giorno.
Vrebosch, finishing out his first term in North Bay following a decades-long run in politics in East Ferris, faced a complaint from a City of North Bay employee stating he had contravened section 9.3 of the Code of Conduct for Members of Council of the Corporation of the City of North Bay and Certain Local Boards:
9.3 Each Member shall show respect for Staff, and for their professional capacities and responsibilities.
The incident under investigation by Giorno centred around a conversation between Vrebosch and a co-worker of the City employee who lodged the complaint, Frank Amyotte, and whether this exchange of words and actions constituted an act of intimidation. The investigation was conducted in March and April of this year but, according to Amyotte, the incident occurred in September or October of 2021.
On March 3, Amyotte wrote the following in an email thread with his manager: "In late September/early October, a Councillor brought his [minor relative] in for hockey tryouts. [Co-Worker] was working when he approached [Co-Worker]. The Councillor asked [Co-Worker] where that Amyotte guy was. [Co-Worker] told him I wasn’t working that day. The Councillor proceeded to tell [Co-Worker] that I had a 'hard on' for him and his daughter. Other event staff are also
aware of what the Councillor said as [Co-Worker] told them about it. This comment is totally inappropriate and is completely counter to the respectful workplace policy the City has adopted."
According to the Integrity Commissioner's report, Amyotte's contention was that Vrebosch violated the Code by speaking disrespectfully about him to another arena employee and asserted Vrebosch was attempting to "intimidate and to discourage the Complainant from political commentary."
In section 23 of the report, Giorno writes, "The Complainant’s position is that the Respondent came to the arena, and sought to identify him, in order to intimidate him. The Complainant speculates that the Respondent knew of the Complainant because the latter is a frequent commenter on social media about civic politics, and makes many critical comments about City business."
Giorno later adds, "Councillor B. Vrebosch acknowledges that he initially became aware of the Complainant through the latter’s comments on social media. In the Respondent’s words: "Mr. Amyotte has repeatedly made negative, false and sometimes abusive comments about myself and my daughter (Tanya Vrebosch, Deputy Mayor) on public Facebook pages, such as BayToday and The Nugget."
In his response to the allegations, Vrebosch "explained that the attempt to identify the Complainant reflected his 'personal approach with residents who express concerns,' that he developed during more than forty years in municipal politics. Concerning his intention, the Respondent stated: 'It was not and has never been my intention to disrespect or intimidate Mr. Amyotte either as an employee of the City or as a citizen; I made inquiries to [the Co-Worker] about Mr. Amyotte, meant solely to identify Mr. Amyotte so that I could eventually introduce myself and discuss any issues and/or grievances he may have with me personally, so as to diffuse the tone of his online posts.'"
Vrebosch acknowledged speaking to Amyotte's co-worker but maintained he did not attend Memorial Gardens that day for the purpose of intimidating Amyotte but rather to accompany his family member to hockey tryouts. According to Giorno's report, when Vrebosch "encountered the Co-Worker, he recalled asking
'Who is this Frank Amyotte guy?' He explained that his intent in asking this was only to identify the Complainant out of curiosity, not to harass or intimidate him."
Vrebosch maintains he "does not believe he would ever use the phrase 'hard on' in any context. He does, however, acknowledge that he cannot recall the exact comments he made to the Co-Worker."
Giorno found Vrebosch "did not intend to intimidate," Amyotte and "his words could not reasonably be interpreted as intimidating." Giorno finds the "brief words spoken by the Respondent were not disrespectful. The words were not contrary to the Code."
The Integrity Commissioner concludes, "I find that Councillor Bill Vrebosch did not contravene the Code of Conduct."
In Giorno's findings of fact — based on the evidence, according to the standard of the balance of probabilities — he recognizes the critical social media comments originating with Amyotte and directed toward Vrebosch and his family. "Examples include an online comment telling the Respondent, then 78 years old, 'Have a nap, Bill.' Another comment was, 'If you don't like North Bay, we'll gladly return you to East Ferris.'
"To be clear," Giorno continues, "the social media comments were an exercise of the Complainant’s right to freedom of expression and the Complainant was perfectly entitled to voice these sentiments. In a democracy, people have every right to criticize elected officials. At the same time, given the nature of the Complainant’s comments, I find as a fact that it was unsurprising and unremarkable that the Respondent was aware of, and, remembered them."
Giorno states, "It is clear that the Respondent came to Memorial Gardens for a personal purpose other than seeking out the Complainant. The facts do not support the allegation that the Respondent went to the Complainant’s place of work in an effort to intimidate him...I find that the Respondent did not intend to intimidate the Complainant and that the Respondent’s words could not reasonably be interpreted as intimidating. Given these conclusions, whether the Respondent knew that the Complainant was employed by the City is irrelevant."
Coun. Vrebosch declined to comment on the matter directly but allowed it is a citizen's right to pursue such an avenue of complaint.
Amyotte tells BayToday he merely reported to his manager the version of events relayed to him by his co-worker. "Somebody didn't tell the truth, and I'll stand by my version of what transpired. It is clear who pays the commissioner."