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Integrity commissioner concludes investigations into complaints against Ward 4 councillor

Cria PettingillBrock Township’s integrity commissioner has concluded investigations into complaints against Ward 4 Councillor Cria Pettingill.

The complaints – which were both filed by Mayor Debbie Bath-Hadden – relate to Coun. Pettingill’s post as a member of the Wilfrid Community Hall board and her role in organizing a fundraising concert for the facility last summer.

Mayor Bath-Hadden alleged that Coun. Pettingill had breached the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act and Council Code of Conduct in suggesting that the musicians be paid an extra $300 for the show on Aug. 15.

Summary reports on the investigations by Integrity Commissioner Guy Giorno are included in the agenda for Monday’s (March 2) meeting of the committee of the whole and are expected to be the topic of a lengthy conversation.

While the reports note that Coun. Pettingill did not breach the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act and Council Code of Conduct, she did convene a meeting of the hall board without satisfying the requirements of the Municipal Act and acted in a “flawed, unaccountable, opaque, and, frankly, irresponsible” manner to secure extra payment for the musician.

According to the reports, Coun. Pettingill called a closed meeting of the hall board, held in the kitchen of the facility and involving the majority of members, at the conclusion of the fundraising concert by Russell DeCarle and two other musicians.

While there are four different recollections about the payment terms of the unwritten contract, the report states that Coun. Pettingill paid DeCarle $1,200 prior to the show and later convinced board members to hand over an additional $300 due to the success of the event.

It notes that Coun. Pettingill referred to the payment terms as “flexible” and that the extra $300 was effectively a “tip” for the musicians.

As Coun. Pettingill did not personally benefit from the additional money, Giorno found that the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act did not apply.

As well, the Council Code of Conduct was not breached because DeCarle is simply an acquaintance of Coun. Pettingill’s – not a personal friend.

“The councillor did not benefit personally and did not use her position to benefit a friend. Nonetheless, she placed herself in a situation that should never have occurred. She was the intermediary who negotiated an unwritten contract between the hall board and a musician. But for failure to document the terms of payment, this complaint would never have arisen. Further, the lack of a written agreement exposed the hall board and the councillor to unnecessary risk,” reads a summary on the complaints.

“The councillor convened and conducted a closed hall board meeting without notice, without following proper procedure, and without satisfying the requirements of the Municipal Act. The councillor cajoled the Hall Board to make a snap decision to pay extra to the musician, contrary to the board members’ inclinations and contrary to any sound decision-making principles. The councillor acknowledges she was wrong to say that the Township did not need the extra money that was paid to the musician.”

As a local board of the Township, meetings of the Wilfrid Community Hall board are subject to provisions contained in the Municipal Act.

Under section 238 of the legislation, any collective communication involving a quorum of members who “discuss or otherwise deal with any matter that materially advances the business or decision making of the council, local board or committee” constitutes a meeting.

“Almost everyone to whom I spoke now realizes that the kitchen session was a meeting of the board, convened without regard to the requirements of the Act,” the report reads.

“Coun. Pettingill (and she acknowledges this) was entirely responsible for convening, and effectively chairing, this meeting. In the Township of Brock, as in other Ontario municipalities, council member orientation and training covers the Municipal Act’s meeting requirements. A purpose of this council education is to avoid informal meetings like the one in the kitchen, and to ensure official meetings that do occur follow proper procedure. The things that occurred – the lack of a written contract, the convening of a meeting outside the requirements of the Municipal Act, trying to force a rushed decision without notice, spending public money on a discretionary basis, ignoring motions, minutes and rules of speaking – should never have taken place, and Coun. Pettingill is responsible for all of them.”

All meetings of the hall board must be held with proper advance notice, generally be open to the public and records of decisions must be kept, Giorno wrote.

He concluded the procedure involving the impromptu meeting was “flawed.”

“No notice was given. No agenda was circulated. No motion was moved. No proper vote occurred. No minutes were taken,” the report reads.

“These procedures are not formalities. They support accountable, transparent and responsible decision making. All the other Board members described to me how the lack of process interfered with their ability to make a proper, responsible decision. This is to say nothing of the Councillor’s decision to impose a sense of urgency on the discussion, and her unwillingness to let up until her view prevailed. Neither is consistent with appropriate meeting procedure.”

While it notes that Coun. Pettingill used “influence of office” to get the extra payment approved, she was doing so in her capacity as a member of board and not in pursuit of a personal interest.

“She was acting as an appointed member of the hall board. What occurred should never have taken place, but still it occurred in the course of official duties,” it reads.

The report notes that funds generated by the hall board are public money and the group must conduct itself with transparency, accountability and responsibility.

“I spoke to no one who felt that a rushed decision to pay an additional $300 on an ‘urgent’ basis was a process appropriate for a local board of the municipality. A hasty and last-minute spending decision, inside a kitchen, on no notice, is not transparent, accountable or responsible. It is the opposite of all three,” the report reads.

“Councillor Pettingill regrets saying the Township did not need the money. Whether made once (as she recalls) or repeatedly (as others recall), this statement is incompatible with the obligation of a council member and a hall board member to protect the interests of the Township. The use of the word ‘tip’ and the suggestion that payment terms were ‘flexible’ are also incompatible with how a local board of a municipality should spend public money. Members of the hall board were not deciding to throw a few extra dollars on top of a bar bill. They were deciding to disburse funds of the Township. Public spending decisions should be based on objective not subjective considerations, according to terms that are clear and certain, not discretionary and variable.”

In an effort to make the situation a “teachable moment” – a learning experience that will not be repeated – Giorno made four recommendations to the Township.

They are:

– The Wilfrid Community Hall board should contract only in writing;

– Council should consider whether it wishes to receive refresher training in the meeting requirements of the Municipal Act. Council should also consider whether it should extend the training to members of local boards;

– Council members appointed to advisory committees and local boards should respect the rules for calling and conducting meetings; and,

– Staff should be asked to consider whether to propose amendments to the Council Code of Conduct to address situations such as the one giving rise to the complaint.

“Council may wish to revisit the Code and consider amendments to broaden it,” the summary reads.

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