Saturday, November 23, 2013

Integrity Commissioner Suzanne Craig Presents Report

The Integrity Commissioner, Suzanne Craig presented her final report to the St. Catharines City Clerk dated October 23rd. There was no investigation of the allegations of deceit by City Councillor Jeff Burch. Councillor Burch therefore has not been cleared nor has he been found at fault, as that could not be possible without a thorough investigation conducted. Two major obstacles stood in the way of an investigation, first and foremost the Code of Conduct as it had been written provided no real authority to the Integrity Commissioner. Second, an OMB hearing had been scheduled and the issues surrounding the allegations cross-referenced issues to be raised at the OMB. In the end it appears that under provincial regulations the OMB supersedes with its authority over an Integrity Commissioner.

Councillor Jeff Burch now stands under a cloud of allegation that he intentionally and willingly mislead council, and that he was deceitful in his own chosen words during a public council meeting on April 29th 2013. This report by the integrity commissioner is not anticipated to find its way for public viewing, not at the hands of the City of St. Catharines. Under the rules that govern such reports, a city council may sit on a report for 90 days before making it public. In this specific case no investigation was conducted and as such no recommendations had been made by the Integrity Commissioner, Suzanne Craig. Comments made by the commissioner only add to a list of questionable acts by a city government and its manipulations of the local media.

It has been confirmed by the integrity commissioner that she had requested from the City of St. Catharines she be given web presence, and that the report be made public on the city web. Expectations do not run high on such an event occurring, and for that reason the full report, in its entirety, has been published here.

Under the rules that govern the game of Code of Conduct, the council has the authority to huddle and withhold the report by the Integrity Commissioner for 90 days. As the commissioner did not, was not, able to conduct an investigation, and therefore made no recommendations, the council does not have to release any of it to the public. Commissioner Craig states on page 3, “The Code is a document that was adopted by St. Catharines City Council as an agreement to a common understanding of rules regarding behaviour of individual Members of Council.” What does this really mean in real language?

One of the key principles of the 'Code', boldly claims, “Members are responsible for making honest statements and no member shall make a statement when they know that statement is false, or with the intent to mislead...” Councillor Jeff Burch knew he was being dishonest at the April 29th meeting and continued on. Commissioner Craig quotes from the Councillor's Guide published by the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. On page 3 of the guide there is a caution to Members of Council, “be sure to familiarize yourself with any policies or protocols that your municipality may have in place to minimize liability or for other specific reasons.” Councillor Jeff Burch knew the facts, knew the applicable Ontario legislation, and he knew he was intentionally deceitful and misleading.

The second key point of the 'Code' states, “Members are expected to serve the public interest by upholding both the letter and the spirit of the laws and policies established... Ontario Legislature.” Now this one is truly something to behold. Listening to Councillor Burch's words one can truly understand how he served the public interest and upheld the letter of the law or policy. Yet Commissioner Craig states, “The matter subject of this complaint falls outside of the jurisdiction of the Integrity Commissioner and therefore, I cannot make a finding regarding the veracity of the allegations made against the Member of Council.”

In Ontario the public cannot expect that the interests of the public, or public trust itself will ever be defended. Whether it is the Ontario Elections Act or the Municipal Elections Act, there is a common fine print guarantee provided in invisible ink. No elected individual regardless of how corrupt, dishonest or deceitful will face any consequences, even when evidence proves the corruption, dishonesty and deceit beyond doubt.

Still Commissioner Craig had made some attempt to provide a basis of dignity in her attempts to elevate the issues placed before her. Her report ends with these words, “However when evaluating the integrity and ethical conduct of a Member of Council, my role is to apply the rules of the common basis for acceptable conduct to the facts gathered throughout the investigation. As no investigation will be undertaken, it is the position of this office that no finding of fault can be made in relation to Councillor Burch.”

Councillor Burch has not been cleared of the serious allegations, nor has he been found guilty of them. Public trust, integrity and ethical conduct take a beating in the end, and the science, or is it the alchemy, of politics scores another corpse to trample. If the City Council of St. Catharines releases anything, it will be the last sentence alone. The council will have the support of its clean-up crew at The Standard. After all The Standard published the words of the wonderfully eloquent Councillor Jennie Stevens without providing any facts.

The report by Commissioner Craig did however make three very alarming comments. In brief the Integrity Commissioner Suzanne Craig had raised the issue of “clarity” and “insufficient disclosure” at the City. Craig referred to the “discrepancy between the Ontario Regulation 97/04 requirement for permits and the absence of a site alteration by-law in the City...,” Craig quotes the words of the Niagara Escarpment Compliance and Enforcement Officer, Mathew Williamson, “fill material being deposited without approvals from respective agency(s),” Finally Integrity Commissioner Suzanne Craig states, “what if any communication will be provided to residents regarding the OMB hearing on the matter regarding the Merritt Street property.” In short the answer here was – NONE!

Reading this neatly presented report of four pages, one begins to question if some frustration might of crept forward between those very neat words. Commissioner Craig begins her response to Complaint 0113 with a quote from 'The Code'. It appears that there was a purpose to 'The Code', and it was to “...ensure that (Members of Council) share a common integrity base and through adherence to its principles, the Code of Council, serves to enhance public trust.” By the end of this report, or response by Commissioner Craig, one alarming, nagging question clings to the foul air. How was public trust enhanced?

As the report states, Commissioner Suzanne Craig had a teleconference with the Deputy CAO and other senior officials from the City, and on October 8th 2013 met with the Complainant face to face. It is this meeting that raised greater alarm. Rules, regulations and procedures were explained. Then the Commissioner asked the Complainant to take the proverbial gloves off, to be open about his concerns and the issue at hand. Background information was provided to the situation and the allegation which formed Complaint 0113.

The now infamous telephone answering machine message by Councillor Jennie Stevens was explained. In that message, Councillor Jennie Stevens had said that she spoke with the mayor, and names Mayor Brian McMullan, and then says that the mayor had taken care of the ticket (a lawful by-law fine) and the individual did not have to pay it. At this point Commissioner Suzanne Craig stops the Complainant from continuing with these words: “I have an obligation also to report, if I believe that if there was something that I believe was criminal I have to report it. Thank you for sharing that, but we have to end it there.”

Rules and procedures are an integral component of law and legislation. As an Ontario Municipal Board Hearing was confirmed to be scheduled by the Complainant, Commissioner Craig explained that under normal circumstances she would close the file and depart. The OMB apparently holds a position of higher authority over an Integrity Commissioner, and therefore carries with it jurisdictional authority. Commissioner Craig decided not to do what would of been expected, but instead to still provide the report that she had. It would be impossible to guess what was the motivation behind this decision. Was it the serious nature of the allegation or the severity of evidence provided in support, the teleconference with the Deputy CAO and other senior officials of the City? Or was it simply the dignity of belief that our system of government was worth investment?

Commissioner Suzanne Craig was stopped from investigating Complaint 0113. Truth was not served, and Councillor Jeff Burch not cleared of the allegations of intentional deceit. Is it cowardice or something else that protect our elected officials from facing any consequences for their actions? Whether it is the horrific farce of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, or the fixing of a lawful fine by St. Catharines Mayor Brian McMullan, or as Complaint 0113 alleged, the intentional deceit by Councillor Jeff Burch, none of them face any consequence.

In St. Catharines the City Council may decide to let Marlene Bergsma of The Standard to stride her stuff again, as she had so many times in the past. If Marlene Bergsma does, she will most likely pick the last twelve words of Commissioner Craig's report and not even the whole last sentence. For that reason it is published here in its entirety.

Finally a clue to the possible frustration of the Commissioner may be the stutter in the numbering of the neatly arranged report. The number 15 seems to repeat itself and lead to only a high cliff. Political transparency in the end is only a popular phrase now thrown around like confetti, and the only real transparency may be in the see-through undies if worn by those we elect.

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