East Ferris council members and the municipality’s planning advisory committee chairperson have been cleared of allegations they broke code of conduct policies by its Integrity Commissioner.
“I find no contravention of the Municipality of East Ferris Council Code of Conduct by John O’Rourke during the March 27, 2019 PAC meeting, or by any members of Council during the May 14, 2019 Council meeting,” David King, the municipality’s integrity commissioner stated in his report received by East Ferris council Tuesday evening.
King was referring to the complaint registered by Maggie Preston-Coles last year alleging John O’Rourke, chair of the planning advisory body and the entire East Ferris council contravened the East Ferris Code of Conduct.
In November, King had already ruled on Preston-Cole’s allegation that O’Rourke should have declared a conflict of interest over a 25-lot subdivision plan before it was recommended for adoption by council. O’Rourke was cleared despite King finding that he had a direct pecuniary interest due to his Brownstone kitchen and bathroom business doing work for the developer, Degagne’s Carpentry. It’s listed as a “partner in quality” on the Brownstone website.
King noted they are not legal partners and that the interest was deemed so “remote” and “insignificant” to not influence him, partly because the developer said his clients choose which company supplies and installs their kitchens and bathrooms. There was, however, no indication King attempted to quantify exactly how much work Brownstone does with the developer.
The $32,814.63 cost of both investigations was also made public Tuesday. The bill for the more recent code of conduct probe was $9,534.37 with King stating he didn’t need to interview O’Rourke again because he was already cleared in the first decision. He also noted that the municipal code of conduct only applies to elected officials. Citizens appointed to boards and committees fall under a separate policy.
Preston-Coles code of conduct complaint focused on her position that council members, after being informed that O’Rourke didn’t declare a conflict of interest, that they should have initiated an investigation. She also claimed that they had shown “wanton or reckless disregard to treat members of the public appropriately” by engaging in “verbal abuse, bullying or intimidation” as she made her delegation presentation May 14, 2019.
King interviewed Preston-Coles in December 2020 as part of the code of conduct investigation and he quoted her from their exchange about the incident almost 17 months later.
“I wanted to address the plan of subdivision application as part of my delegation,” Preston-Coles explained, noting a media article quoted staff and elected officials about working with residents regarding their concerns about the subdivision. She told them she was not allowed to make a presentation at the April 23, 2019 meeting where council voted to approve the draft plan of subdivision application.
“When I mentioned my difficulty in obtaining information from staff and the alleged conflict of interest by John O’Rourke the tone of the meeting changed, and certain members of council became agitated,” she said. “During my delegation I was accused of being repetitive by Councillor Kelly and as a result, I felt intimidated. “
A witness at the May 14, 2019 meeting, Sue Lamont, was also interviewed by King, who quoted her response: “Councillor (Terry) Kelly did not raise his voice but was stern in his remarks and reprimanded the complainant for her statements about municipal staff. Mayor (Pauline) Rochefort shut down the discussion about the plan of subdivision and the alleged conflict of interest prematurely for no reason.”
No other councillors were implicated in the allegations.
King interviewed Rochefort and Kelly as well as councillors Steve Trahan and Erika Lougheed.
Rochefort denied that anybody on council acted inappropriately: “There was no lack of decorum by the members of council during the meeting. There were some awkward moments during the meeting when accusations were being made by the Complainant about staff not providing information about the proposed plan of subdivision and John O’Rourke’s alleged conflict of interest,” she said.
Rochefort also said “the informal style of council meetings allows for an exchange of information” but thought Preston-Coles did do something inappropriate. “The complainant should not have made accusations against municipal staff during the delegation.”
Kelly also denied there was any inappropriate comments made by councillors: “Everything was done in a polite way. Council was not rude or disrespectful to the complainant.”
Lougheed said council “may have been a little impatient with the complainant as she had previously been before council on the same issue” but she didn’t think council as a whole did anything inappropriate either.
“But I think that council can improve on how we deal with delegations appearing before council,” she said, adding that “As a whole, council has the tendency to be dismissive of delegations. The delegation process needs to be looked at.”
Trahan said neither council as a whole or any individual councillor or the complainant did anything inappropriate.
King made several recommendations to council as part of his report, including orientation training about all applicable policies and procedural bylaws for citizen appointees on committees.
He said council should also consider only elected members of council as chairs of advisory committees and it should review delegation process to ensure the public understands what they can expect.
King also noted that the complaint and application procedures related to the Integrity Commissioner’s role is developed and posted on the municipal website.
Kelly said he felt “vindicated as far as the charges” but it was “unfortunate there was no more economical way of resolving the issue,” adding the $32,000 total represents one percent of the property tax bill.
Rochefort noted that cost doesn’t include the staff time dedicated to the investigation.
Preston-Coles didn’t respond to an email request Tuesday evening for comment. Meanwhile, she is awaiting a decision from the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal regarding her appeal of council’s approval of the 25-lot subdivision plan.
Late last year, the LPAT had asked the municipality to forward a motion to dismiss the appeal outright and not hold a hearing on the matter. It’s been delayed since last February and Preston-Coles initiated an complaint about how LPAT has handled her appeal application.
Dave Dale is a Local Journalism Reporter with BayToday.ca. LJI is funded by the Government of Canada.