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'Anything but transparent': Council drawn into Heart Barrie saga

'It may be one of the worst motions we moved in the last term (of council) and for those who watched, there might be a few,' deputy-mayor says of landmark sign approval
The Heart Barrie sign at Heritage Park along the city's waterfront.

The dearth of financial detail provided for the fund-raised Heart Barrie landmark sign from former councillor Mike McCann has convinced council to seek outside legal advice on the implications to the city.

By direct motion and an 11-0 recorded vote, council decided Wednesday night that the financial details provided by McCann are insufficient.

“I think that as a city we are obligated to be transparent and I think we very much try to be that way, and this situation is anything but transparent,” said Coun. Clare Riepma.

The approved motion states that the applicable city policies be amended to define a process for members of council entering into third-party fundraising partnerships, on behalf of the city, to ensure further accountability and transparency.  

City legal staff will obtain external legal advice concerning the Heart Barrie landmark sign located at Barrie's waterfront, including any potential implications and actions that could be undertaken as a result of the lack of financial information provided by McCann for the sign in correspondence received March 15, 2023.

Ingrid Peters, the city’s director of legal services, said it doesn’t hurt to have another set of eyes on the matter and it can probably be done for less than $20,000.

Coun. Bryn Hamilton, who pointed out she was not a member of the last council that approved the fund-raised sign, made the direct motion.

“The notion of this motion is really with a forward-looking sense,” she said. “I want to ensure on a go-forward basis that we as a council, as a city, have a clear process in place that articulates the approach and process for entering third-party fundraising initiatives.”

Deputy Mayor Robert Thomson, who sat on the last council, said it only has itself to blame.

“We do have a policy and if people had followed this, if the last council would have asked staff for a process on how to move forward, but we actually made this so ambiguous that it’s created this,” he said. 

“It got off the topic of fundraising, it became very divisive, amongst council and it got to the point where — and I said it then and I’ll say it now — I’m sick of the sign and talking about it,” Thomson said. “It may be one of the worst motions we moved in the last term (of council) and for those who watched, there might be a few.

“I don’t want the public to pick this up and say, ‘Oh wow, they don’t have a policy’.”

The City of Barrie does not have a specific policy about fundraising by sitting councillors, but does have a council and committee member code of conduct. It has a donation policy that provides guidance related to the process and requirements of receiving cash and in-kind donations which are intended to support projects, programs or services offered by the city. That policy covers cash donations given directly to the city and establishes the requirements for issuing donation receipts for income tax purposes.

Coun. Gary Harvey supported Wednesday night’s direct motion, but approves of the sign.

“Realistically, there are obviously people that are against the sign. Overall, I think the general public really do appreciate the sign that’s there. This isn’t all bad here,” he said. “I’m not quite convinced this is the cloud it is made out to be.

“I haven’t had anybody reaching out to me, complaining about what’s going on, other than you read all of this stuff in the media," Harvey added. 

Harvey questioned staff on whether any of the sign’s donors have asked the city where their money has gone. The answer was no.

The city’s website shows fundraising information for Heart Barrie, provided by McCann — 11 donations of $20,000 ($220,000), 13 donations of $10,000 ($130,000) and four donations of $5,000 ($20,000). That totals $370,000, although that figure is not on the city page.

“Any leftover money will be spent on promoting Barrie and other charitable organizations including saving the turtles and beavers,” McCann said in his “final statement” on the Heart Barrie financial details, received by the city on March 15.

But McCann has not given a specific accounting of the money raised beyond the $200,000.

Barrie’s former city council passed a motion that any money raised on top of the $200,000 for the Heart Barrie sign, where no donation receipts have been issued, be donated to 'save the beavers' and 'save the turtles' programs in the city.

McCann has said some of the donations are in-kind, for media and administration, although exactly what those donations were for, their value and who made them remains unknown.

McCann has said he would “disclose all financials” for the landmark sign.

The city received $200,000 that was required as part of council approval of the Heart Barrie sign and it was used to pay for the sign’s cost.

Chartered professional accountants Smith, Sykes, Leeper and Tunstall LLP, licensed public accountants, have issued two letters dated March 9 and published on city council’s circulation list ahead of Wednesday’s council meeting, saying everything about the Heart Barrie financials are in order.

Asked by BarrieToday to provide the financials, Smith, Sykes, Leeper and Tunstall declined earlier Wednesday.

McCann has said the sign is intended to unite Barrie — to help businesses by driving residents and visitors to the downtown and have them celebrate the city by being photographed with the landmark sign.

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Bob Bruton

About the Author: Bob Bruton

Bob Bruton is a full-time BarrieToday reporter who covers politics and city hall.
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