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Council Resolution Restricting Communications Of Councillor Unreasonable And Punitive – Government Contracts, Procurement & PPP

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Municipal governments are said to have the most influence on the
day-to-day lives of residents. Accordingly, city staff and elected
representatives, who in Ontario run as independent candidates
because there are no formally recognized municipal electoral
organizations, play an important role in shaping municipal
government policy and crafting decisions that are ultimately
enacted as by-laws. Indeed, the role of a municipal council, or
councillor, is set out under
section 224
of the Municipal Act, 2001 (the
“Act”) or
section 131
of the City of Toronto Act, 2006.
In carrying out their role, however, the views of an elected
representative may clash with the views of city staff.

In some cases, the city staff person will complain that the
clash of views with an elected councillor goes too far and requires
investigation by an Integrity Commissioner for allegations that the
elected representative has breached a Code of Conduct that governs
the behaviour of a member of council. Under the Act, where a breach
of the Code of Conduct is found, council has the final authority to
impose a penalty against the elected representative. However, not
all penalties are reasonable or allowable.

In Villeneuve v. North Stormont (Township),
2022 ONSC 6551
, the Chief Administration Officer (the
“CAO”) of the respondent municipality filed an integrity
commissioner complaint against the applicant councillor for breach
of the municipality’s Code of Conduct. The CAO complained that
the councillor had engaged in recurring disrespectful conduct
toward her, had publicized confidential information about her
salary, and had voted in a conflict of interest. The Integrity
Commissioner concluded that on two occasions the councillor had
breached the Code of Conduct.

The first occasion was during an email exchange that concerned
the resignation of a senior staff person. The second occasion was
during a council meeting when the councillor question the CAO about
certain expenditures.

The Integrity Commissioner concluded that the content and tone
of the councillor’s emails were abusive. In the emails, the
councillor expressed to the CAO that it was “irresponsible and
completely unacceptable” and “completely irresponsible
and unacceptable” that Council had not been made aware of the
resignation of the municipality’s Fire Prevention Officer.

With respect to the councillor’s comments at the council
meeting, the Integrity Commissioner determined that she had used
“intemperate language” to express her dissatisfaction
with the financial disclosure provided by the CAO.

The Integrity Commissioner recommended that the councillor’s
pay be suspended for 45 days and that for a period of 9 months all
emails the councillor wanted to send to the CAO had to go through
the Mayor.

Although Council accepted the recommendation in connection with
the suspension of pay, it determined that the councillor should not
be permitted to email the CAO or staff directly for 14.5 months,
with all communications to go through the Mayor.

The Councillor challenged, among other things, the
reasonableness of the findings of the Integrity Commissioner and
the decision of council to restrict her communications with the CAO
and staff. The councillor contended that the latter decision was
unreasonable and ultra vires.

With respect to the Integrity Commissioner’s findings that
the councillor had breached the Code of Conduct on two occasions,
the councillor argued that she was just doing her job,that she was
entitled to ask questions and state her views.

On a subsequent application for judicial review, the majority of
the Divisional Court found that the Integrity Commissioner’s
findings were reasonable and should not be overturned on judicial
review. In general, the standard of review for the findings of an
Integrity Commissioner is reasonableness.

The majority of the court stated that the email exchange between
the councillor and the CAO could be seen as attacking the CAO’s
professionalism because the councillor characterized his conduct as
“irresponsible”. With respect to the statements made at
the council meeting, the majority of the court found that the
Integrity Commissioner’s conclusion that the councillor had
publicly berated staff was reasonable.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Ramsay concluded that the
Integrity Commissioner’s findings were unreasonable and could
not be justified on the findings of fact made by the Integrity
Commissioner. Although the CAO was not obligated to notify
individual councillors about the Fire Prevention Officer’s
resignation, Justice Ramsay stated that to characterize the
councillor’s comments as abusive or disrespectful applied an
“impossibly sensitive” standard to the email
exchange.

On the issue of the councillor’s comments made at the public
meeting, Justice Ramsay stated as follows:

Elected councillors should not be inhibited in the exercise of
their function by the potential for an integrity investigation
based on criticism in council meetings of the acts of staff or
undue sensitivity to the feelings of the chief administrative
officer. Councillors owe a duty to the electors to concern
themselves with the due administration of the municipality.

Despite upholding the Integrity Commissioner’s findings, the
majority of the court determined that Council’s resolution to
require all of the councillor’s emails to the CAO and staff to
go through the Mayor was ultra vires. Even though a council can
require remedial actions in addition to a reprimand or a suspension
of pay, the restrictive communications sanction imposed by Council
was overbroad and not connected to the conduct under consideration.
The communications sanction was unreasonable and punitive. This
ruling did not affect the 45-day suspension of the councillor’s
remuneration.

This case demonstrates that elected representatives should be
careful when choosing their words to communicate disagreements with
city staff. Words or language that may be viewed as berating a city
staff member or characterizing their conduct as unprofessional
could result in a finding that a Code of Conduct was breached and
result in a suspension of pay. However, the dissenting opinion of
Justice Ramsay, also recognizes that there may be an inherent
tension between the roles of an elected representative and a city
staff member and that decision-makers, whether Integrity
Commissioners or municipal councillors, should not be overly
sensitive to an elected representative’s questioning of staff
on items that are of concern to a municipality or the public. Given
Justice Ramsay’s dissent it will be interesting to see if the
councillor takes any steps to appeal the ruling of the majority of
the court. A PDF version is available to download here.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.

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