Disagreements and personality conflicts among members of municipal councils tend to remain in the background, coming out more often through innuendo and off the cuff remarks, delivered under people’s breaths or away from public view at all.
The same is true for disagreements or personality conflicts between members of municipal council and township staff, and in that case there are a set of rules, laid out in the Municipal Act of Ontario, that limit what municipal councillors can say to and about township staff members.
The so-called “chain of command” says that all comments or questions council members have about how township operations are carried out should be addressed only to the Chief Administrative Officer.
In practice, things tend to be a little different, especially in small, rural municipalities where everyone knows each other. But in rural municipal politics there are still a set of informal conventions that keep the business of municipalities moving along without too much acrimony.
This is what makes the current situation in Tay Valley Township so unusual. As our readers would know, the Frontenac News does not provide regular coverage of Tay Valley Council meetings. We do, however, distribute our paper to the Maberly Post Office, which is in the South Sherbrooke District of Tay Valley Township and we try to keep an eye on what goes on in Tay Valley. The western end of the township is rural and similar to Central Frontenac, but Tay Valley extends to the edge of Perth, and there is more development pressure at that end of the township.
About a year ago, complaints by one member of Tay Valley Council, Judy Farrell about some specific decisions made by the building and planning departments, led a staff member at the township to submit a formal harassment complaint against Farrell, Farrell’s brother Gord Ennis, and MPP Randy Hillier, who had intervened in at least one instance.
In a recent post on Facebook, (September 11) Farrell referred to two instances where she disagreed with township staff decisions. In one case, a resident from Black Lake came to Council to complain about their treatment by township staff when they applied for a building permit. In her posting Farrell acknowledged that she suggested “during an open council meeting, that 2 staff members played favourites in connection with permits sought by a property owner on Black Lake” which she then said was true and that the property owners had proof that others had not been subject to the same rules. She also acknowledges that she supported a Black Lake property owner on Facebook at the time, adding “I support the tax payer and if they are having problems, that is what I am there for. To help them through it.”
The second case at issue revolves around a case involving herself and her husband and how much they were charged for a site plan agreement, ($600) which she says is higher than others have been charged ($400).
While Farrell says that comments she made about those decisions did not single out staff members, but were addressed to Council as a whole, the harassment complaint against her was upheld by a third party investigator. The upshot of the decision was that she was told she must apologise, in writing, to the two staff members and undergo sensitivity training.
Not feeling that she had done anything wrong, Farrell had her lawyer ask for details about the process, including copies of the complaints, but they were not forthcoming. She decided not to comply with the decision of the investigator.
Council then applied a more substantial sanction. Farrell has been removed from all committees, is not welcome at the township office except to attend council meetings, and is not to address staff at all.
Not everyone on council supported applying these sanctions. Councillor Roxanne Darling and Deputy Reeve Brian Campbell voted against the sanctions in a recorded vote.
Darling told the News this week that her vote was based on her thinking that a compromise might be achievable, and that Council was acting in too much haste by imposing the sanctions when they did.
This matter has spilled into the election campaign, indeed it has become the dominant campaign issue. Judy Farrell is running for Deputy Reeve, against Barrie Crampton, a local historian. Brian Campbell is challenging incumbent Keith Kerr and former Deputy Reeve Susan Freeman in the race for Reeve.
All told, 7 of the 8 current members of council are running again, and there are contested races in each district, as well as for Reeve and Deputy Reeve.
Recently, after Judy Farrell’s September 11 Facebook post, in response to media attention that has been generated about Farrell’s case and social media activity around it, Council took the unprecedented step of allowing Reeve Kerr to present their side of the story to the public.
Kerr has since published a media release, which is posted on the township website. It presents the perspective of the majority of council about what has transpired. It says, in part: “While Council has remained silent out of respect for the process and those involved, the township will not remain silent in the face of these unprecedented, highly inaccurate, politically motivated attacks. The township needs to provide accurate facts so that the public can judge for themselves the allegations being made by Councillor Farrell.”
Kerr said that when council sought advice from their lawyer about how to respond to Farrell’s refusal to apologise or undergo training, Farrell refused to recuse herself from those meetings. Since she was to be the subject of the discussions, the discussions did not take place.
“Ask yourself, would you expect a councillor who has been found to have harassed staff to then participate in confidential discussions involving that councillor’s role in the matter, interrelated personnel discussions and legal advice about how to respond to the councillor?” said Kerr near the end of his release.
The entire matter will be come up again this week at an in-camera session of council, to hear an integrity commissioners report “pertaining to personal matters about an identifiable individual”. That report, we can say with 99% certainty, is about Farrell’s activities on council from the lens of the rules of behaviour for councils and councillors that are contained in the Municipal Act.
This private meeting will be followed on Wednesday night by a public all-candidates meeting at Glen Tay school at 26 Harper Road, off Hwy.7.