Norfolk council criticized over handling of integrity matter

Mascarin says council ‘an enabler’ of bad behavior

Norfolk integrity commissioner John Mascarin issued a second supplemental report Thursday on Mayor Kristal Chopp, Norfolk council and the report-ripping incident that occurred in public session Jan. 8 at Governor Simcoe Square. In his report, Mascarin says Norfolk council is “an enabler” of indecorous behavior. Monte Sonnenberg / Simcoe Reformer

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Norfolk County’s integrity commissioner says county council is acting “as an enabler” of Mayor Kristal Chopp who he cited earlier this year for inappropriate behaviour at a public meeting.

In a second supplementary report filed Thursday, Toronto lawyer John Mascarin reiterates that the apology Chopp issued for publicly scolding a senior planner at council Jan. 8 was inadequate.

Chopp’s criticism of a staff report on the advisability of backyard chickens in urban areas included a dramatic tearing of the report into two pieces. Planner Mat Vaughan was at the podium when this occurred. The incident was live-streamed, televised and reported on extensively in the local media.

Mascarin’s latest report focuses on council’s subsequent actions.

He rejected Chopp’s Facebook apology for her behaviour as inadequate but was overruled by council. Council also voted to reimburse the mayor for the two weeks’ salary she was docked by Mascarin as punishment.

Mascarin noted in his report that Coun. Ian Rabbitts said at a meeting that mayor’s integrity matter was “distracting from the business of council” and that “council needs to get on with the business of governing Norfolk County.’”

“Good governance does not just entail providing the residents and businesses of Norfolk County with service at the lowest cost. It also requires that its local elected representatives act with an adherence to its stated ethical principles and values as set out in its code (of conduct) and other policies and guidelines,” he said.

“Wilful blindness is not an option when dealing with matters of integrity. Council’s fiduciary duty to the residents of the county does not relate exclusively to fiscal responsibility. It also demands a strict adherence to matters of integrity.”

In a 6-1 vote, council accepted the mayor’s apology. The same resolution also said “that no further action be taken.”

Mascarin said council cannot tell an “independent” integrity commissioner what to do.

He also criticized as self-serving changes council made to its code-of-conduct rules in response to the Chopp incident.

Council amended its code to give it final say on the recommendations of the integrity commissioner. As well, council ruled that councillors subject to an integrity complaint are entitled to know their accuser’s identity.

“It would be too convenient for council to simply instruct the integrity commissioner to stand down when it determines that the integrity commissioner’s findings and determinations are not to its liking because it castigates political allies or simply because the investigation becomes ‘too costly’ or `too distracting,’” Mascarin said.

“To the extent that council’s resolution to ‘take no further action’ was directed to the integrity commissioner, it is invalid,” he said.

“To be clear, council has the authority to make amendments to its code and it does not have to follow any recommendations made by the integrity commissioner. However, the timing and haste of the two recent amendments cannot be viewed as anything other than an attempt to immunize the members of council from challenge via complaints under the code.”

Mascarin is critical of council’s decision with respect to the mayor’s contraventions of its code of conduct.

“Rather than seeking to deter inappropriate behaviour on the part of one of its members, council has decided to act as an enabler. This matter is now concluded.”

Coun. Chris Van Paassen moved the motion that Chopp be reimbursed for lost salary.

On Friday, he thanked the integrity commissioner for the time he has devoted to this matter and is pleased that Mascarin has moved on, too.

“I have read the supplementary report and appreciate the level of detail he again provides council to help guide us in future deliberations,” Van Paassen said in an email.

“…My opinion was that, since it was council that had asked for the apology, it was up to council to decide if the mayor’s apology met the standard required under the Apology Act.

“Council did accept that the mayor had met that standard and passed a motion to that effect and — in my mind — the matter was closed. I am glad to see that the integrity commissioner also agrees that this matter is concluded and council can now focus on other pressing issues.”

In an email Friday, Mascarin said he waited to respond to council’s actions because a supplemental report in the middle of summer when council is not in session could easily have fallen through the cracks.

Mascarin added that he has not considering resigning.

“This council appointed me to a defined term and I believe I would be abdicating my responsibilities to step down from the position simply because certain members and — to a degree — the council as a whole are behaving in a manner that any reasonable person would consider unsuitable from an ethical perspective,” he said.

“One of my statutory functions as an integrity commissioner is to educate members on matters of integrity. I do hope to be able to do so through my reports and to continue to shine a light on behaviour that council itself has set out in its own code of conduct as being inappropriate.”

Peter Black, a former Simcoe councillor, was one of two complainants to Mascarin about the report-ripping incident. He’s not surprised the integrity commissioner has followed up with a report castigating council.

“I know the integrity commissioner is extremely frustrated with this mayor and council for their clear lack of understanding of the word integrity,” Black said in an email Friday.

“I am sure he feels this council has all but abdicated its ethical responsibilities. This may be why he has waited so long — to let the dust settle and see if cooler, calmer heads prevailed to correct this wrong. He has given them plenty of time.”

Chopp did not respond to an email request for comment Friday. At the meeting where council voted to reimburse her for lost wages, the mayor declared a pecuniary interest and left the council chamber.

Recent provincial legislation requires all municipalities to retain the services of an independent integrity commissioner.