Council Votes To Re-Install Integrity Commissioner. Disciplinary Action Against Councillor Petrowski’s Conduct Deferred
A News Commentary by Doug Draper
Posted December 9th, 2016 on Niagara At Large
“We have to put up with two more years of this,” said but one of a number of Niagara residents who wandered out of the regional council chambers this December 8th while whatever passes as governance in that chambers was still in session.
Well, it’s more like one more year and 10 months, to be precise until, if the electorate across Niagara wakes up and votes smart, all but about a dozen of these regional councillors – the good ones, as some residents have taken to calling them, who have at least been trying to stand up against the relentless tide of sludge that has rolled over the first two years of this term of council – are swept out of office in the next municipal elections.
It has been a “dreadful” year, observed one regional councillor – Lincoln Mayor Sandra Easton – at the December 8th regional council meeting as she considered the number of complaints about conduct involving councillors, staff and members of the public in 2016. She has never, in all her years, experienced anything to match it, she said.
But more about the dreadful year (or two years, others might say) later. Let’s get back to the dreadful night.
It began and ended with the seat Andy Petrowski normally occupies in the regional council chambers sitting their empty. Yet the St. Catharines councillor was very much on the minds of those who were present as they spent the better part of two hours discussing the need to reinstate an integrity commissioner – a position a majority of councillors decided to eliminate more than a year ago – and draft a stricter code of conduct for council members.
First on the agenda were three members of the public – Perry Schlanger, Hailey Bateman and Jeff Burch – who were finally given a green light to speak to the council this December 8th.. The light came on after a week of back-and-forth, off-and-on-correspondence involving the regional clerk and the council’s chair, Al Caslin, over restricting them to taking about the issue of reinstating an integrity commissioner and not focusing on the proverbial elephant in the room – Andy Petrowski, who has been a focus of criticism in the community after the president of the B’nai Israel congregation in Niagara wrote Caslin a letter this past November 24th, complaining about Petrowski posting an anti-Semitic video (one he has since taken down) on Twitter.
A story about what Burch, who is executive director of the Niagara Folk Arts Multicultural Centre, along with Bateman and Schlanger, were going through to get on the council agenda, appeared on the front page of a local newspaper this past December 6th under the headline; ‘Trio claims Region muzzling their speech.’ That, along with the trail of email between Burch and regional honchoes over getting on the agenda, is a case study, in and of itself, of how mad and dysfunction this term of regional council has become.
When Burch finally had his turn to speak, he was stopped by Caslin when he got into the anti-Semitic mess and other controversial conduct involving Petrowski, but at the end of his presentation, he had this to say.
“As a board member and South Region Director of OCASI, the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, and as Chair of their policy and research committee,” said Burch, “I am proud of the work we have done in partnership with Mayor (John) Tory and the City of Toronto in putting together a campaign against racism and Islamophobia that is leading the way in Canada. It is bold, it is direct and it deals with these issues head on.”
“When I go to Toronto and discuss these issues with my colleagues,” Burch added, “I do not want to feel ashamed that I am from Niagara, where this behavior is ignored and tolerated. Please do the right thing and take action tonight.”
As it turned out, Caslin spoke for a motion to spend a starting amount of $25,000 to retain an integrity commissioner (in the name of lawyer John Mascarin, who also performs that function for St. Catharines’ city council) and to update the regional government’s code of conduct. It’s a recommendation that comes in the wake of news from the Ontario government that it is almost certainly going to have legislation passed, making it mandatory for all municipal councils across the province to have an integrity commissioner anyway.
The motion received some blowback from councillors who more often side with Caslin on contentious issues.
Port Colborne regional councillor David Barrick, who reminded the council that he has voted against having an integrity commissioner before, said he fears it will inspire some members of the public to use it as a “political weapon” or as another way of going on “a witch hunt” with “frivolous, vexatious complaints” against councillors they don’t like.
Barrick said he doesn’t want to see people complaining about “anything and everything” a councillor might do “so they can get a splash in the paper.”
Niagara Falls regional councillor Selina Volpatti said she’s afraid that if things go too far with an integrity commission and code of conduct, it might interfere with a councillor’s freedom of speech – a right she said she feels should not be threatened when councillors are out in the community, performing other roles in their lives. At one point during her remarks she mentioned that she is a member of the Catholic Church – a reference that had a few people wondering, as they left the chambers later in the evening, what that had to do with the matter at hand.
Lincoln regional councillor Bill Hodgson provided a different take.
“When you are an elected official,” he said. “We are held to a much higher standard. … For us to suggest that we have to do something to protect ourselves from (any criticism that may come from members of) the community is beyond me. …”
“What we see in the papers,” added Hodgson of Petrowski’s response to criticism from community members about his recent conduct, is “more denial” and comments from him that he is a target of “unwarranted attacks.”
“There is a cost to humanity by ignoring this stuff,” Hodgson added of any conduct by councillors that is offensive or damaging, and if the council at large does not deal with it today, it will be there to haunt them tomorrow or sometime later.
Pelham regional councillor and Mayor Dave Augustyn put a motion on the floor, urging the council to act now to discipline Petrowski, barring him from sitting on regional committees, sub-committees and related boards and agencies until he issues an apology for his behaviour in writing.
But Volpatti and Barrick said any action against Petrowski should wait until an integrity commissioner is on hand to review the matter and the councillor is available to defend himself.
Barrick said he feels it is “borderline hypocrisy” to put a motion on the floor to discipline Petrowksi after spending two hours discussing the need to re-install an integrity commissioner. It’s not the council’s place to play “judge and jury,” he said.
Volpatti added that the council shouldn’t operate like a “kangaroo court.”
The council ultimately voted to defer taking any steps against Petrowski until an integrity commissioner is in place in the New Year.
As for drafting a new code of conduct, Thorold regional councillor was able to win support for an amendment to hold a public meeting at some point along the way to give citizens across Niagara a say in what the code should look like.
So there it was, another session of regional council where time that could and should have been devoted to discussing public transit, job creation or other issues important to people’s lives in Niagara was taken up on bringing back an integrity commissioner role that never should have been eliminated in the first place.
This is an “emergency of our own making,” said Hodgson, of “not having he tools” – namely an integrity commissioner and an effective code of conduct – to deal with the latest upset, this one involving Petrowski and the video he posted on Twitter. “I think we owe the community an apology for putting ourselves in this position.”
An apology, to say the least.
We are one year and 10 months away from the next municipal elections. Much more on that later.
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