Oro-Medonte’s integrity commissioner has ruled a township councillor should be reprimanded and have their pay suspended for 60 days because they breached the township’s code of conduct and the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act.
The integrity commissioner also wants the councillor to receive a copy of his report, and review the code of conduct and the legislation.
In his written decision on Nov. 14, integrity commissioner John Ewart said the councillor “breached the Municipal Code of Conduct by distributing a court document to five members of council on Aug. 29, 2023 in an attempt to influence council or members of council regarding the subject matter of short-term rentals.
“I am further persuaded that the member has breached the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act by distributing a court document to five members of council on Aug. 29, 2023 in an attempt to influence council or members of council regarding the subject of short-term rentals of which the member had declared a pecuniary conflict of interest," Ewart added.
The councillor is not named in the report, but is described as someone who “has recused himself due to a pecuniary conflict of interest on at least eight prior occasions from matters coming before council relating to short-term rental accommodations. The previous recusals were based on the fact that the member of council owns and periodically operates a bed and breakfast establishment," the decision says.
Oro-Medonte Mayor Randy Greenlaw and Deputy Mayor Peter Lavoie said they have never recused themselves from a discussion about short-term rentals. Councillors Lori Hutcheson, John Bard, David Clark and Robert Young also said they have never recused themselves when the topic has come up.
When reached for comment by BarrieToday, Coun. Richard Schell said he had none at the moment, but would make a full statement at council Wednesday afternoon.
According to the integrity commissioner’s report, the incident occurred in council chambers during a special meeting of council on Aug. 29. The councillor recused himself from a closed session of council because they had a conflict of pecuniary interest on the subject of short-term rental accommodations.
At the Aug. 29 regular meeting of council and prior to the closed session, the councillor — “in a manner unknown” — placed a sealed and unaddressed envelope in front of five council members.
The mayor asked staff if they knew where the envelope had come from. The councillor who had placed the envelopes heard the question but did not admit to placing the envelopes. Staff said they did not know who placed the envelopes.
During the closed session, when the councillor who had declared a pecuniary interest was not present, members of council again inquired where the envelopes had come from and no one present could provide a source.
Inside each envelope were two items, including the document submitted to the Divisional Court for the purposes of opposing the township’s application for a leave to appeal the decision of vice-chair Sharyn Vincent’s Ontario Land Tribunal oral decision of March 29, 2022 as well as the written decision of Aug. 24, 2022. The document was prepared by the Oro-Medonte Association for Responsible STRs. It represented the opposite opinion of the township’s with regard to a matter before the Divisional Court.
The councillor admitted to placing both the document and the decision of the Ontario Land Tribunal (OLT) in the envelope, according to Ewart's report. The councillor told the other members of council the document was a decision of the Divisional Court.
The councillor also was told by members of council that the document was not a decision, according to the report, but rather the position of the parties opposing the township’s leave to appeal the decision of the OLT dated Aug. 24, 2022.
When the councillor was asked by the mayor why he distributed the document, he said several residents wanted council to know about this legal “decision,” according to the integrity commissioner's report.
The councillor didn’t name the residents and said he prepared, sealed and placed the envelopes himself, according to the report. He also said he found the document by doing an internet search. He said no one gave him the documents.
As the councillor and his spouse own and operate two short-term rental properties, it was alleged the councillor acted in a way that: a) was in actual or potential conflict with the township; b) had a direct pecuniary interest in the outcome of the legal dispute between the township and the operators and; c) had a present and ongoing pecuniary interest due to the operations of the respondent and his spouse’s short-term rental properties.
The specific complaint is that: a) having a conflict of interest, the councillor did attempt to influence and solicit council’s support, by circulating a court document, advocating a position that was contrary to the position of council in which the township was involved in litigation; b) the councillor misrepresented, to select members, a document as being a decision of the Divisional Court on a matter in which the councillor had recused himself and in which the township was a party to the proceeding before the Divisional Court; and c) that the actions of the member of council described in (a) and (b), were contrary to the provisions of the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act and the Municipal Code of Conduct.
It was alleged the councillor, in an attempt to influence council or members of council, provided a document to five members of council that: a) was biased toward the operators of short-term rentals; b) contained arguments that were not persuasive enough to prevent the Divisional Court from granting the township leave to appeal the decisions of the Ontario Land Tribunal; c) the councillor had a self-declared pecuniary conflict of interest on the matter of short-term rentals and the document represents the very interest for which he was recused: d) the circulation of the document was an attempt by the member to influence the deliberations of council while having declared a conflict of interest on Aug. 29, 2023.
In his finding, Ewart said: “Distributing the document on the morning of Aug. 29, 2023 in an anonymous fashion prior to the commencement of a meeting of council to five members of council was an attempt to influence council on a matter which the member had declared a conflict of interest contrary to Section 11.2 of the Municipal Code of Conduct.
“The events of the morning of Aug. 29, 2023 serve to persuade me that the member, by providing a document contrary to the township’s position and in an anonymous manner, was an attempt to influence council as it related to the subject of short-term rentals,” Ewart added.
“I am further persuaded that the member has breached the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act by distributing a court document to five members of council on Aug. 29, 2023 in an attempt to influence council or members of council regarding the subject of short-term rentals of which the member had declared a pecuniary conflict of interest.”