In her first act as a newly appointed councillor, Raika Sheppard asked her council for more compassion.
Sheppard brought forward a motion in June for the city to affirm the “compassion charter,” which she told council would be “the first step in us treating each other better as colleagues and treating the staff better and working toward the greater good of Richmond Hill residents.”
It was an impassioned plea from the city’s newest ward councillor who had watched — as a resident — as elected officials berated, bullied and interrupted each other at council meetings all year. The motion met some resistance from her peers but eventually passed.
Though aimed at Richmond Hill, Sheppard’s motion could be added to the agenda of municipal councils across Ontario — including several in the GTA — where local politicians have displayed all kinds of bad behaviour, including vicious infighting, harassment and the bullying of fellow councillors, staff and residents.
And it appears to be getting worse: “The environments within the municipal sector and the relationship of staff with council and the public have gotten strained over the COVID period,” said David Arbuckle, executive director for the Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario, which represents 2,000 municipal workers. “Staff are concerned with especially harassment from council and the public.”
In response to several incidents of questionable councillor behaviour this term, the province launched a review of municipal codes of conduct in 2021 to find ways to strengthen accountability measures and impose harsher penalties on elected officials who violate ethics rules.
The Association of Municipalities of Ontario conducted the 90-day review and issued recommendations, many of them focused on enforcement, including stiffer financial penalties, a temporary suspension of a council member and the possible removal from office altogether.
But the province never followed through with its promise of reform — in the form of legislative amendments — and with municipal elections in October, it’s unclear if it ever will.
The province did not respond to the Star’s requests for comment about whether it would be restarting the code of conduct review or bringing in changes.
Under the Municipal Act, councils have to create and abide by codes of conduct and appoint integrity commissioners to adjudicate problems.
“The problem is not the code of conduct … it’s the enforcement mechanisms that don’t exist,” said Lauren Bernardi, a human resources lawyer. “There have certainly been findings of harassment or code of conduct violations, but then there’s not a lot that can be done to the people who violate it.”
The harshest penalty permitted under the legislation is to be docked pay for up to 90 days. The most a council can do is ask an elected official to resign.
“It’s outrageous what some of these councillors think they can get away with,” said John Mascarin, a municipal and land use planning lawyer who has served as integrity commissioner in municipalities across the province. “But the penalties are so low … that they do.”
Bernardi said without change, toxic councils become “a pressure cooker” situation for municipal staff. “Without a remedy, without an accountability piece … you won’t be able to change behaviour. And I don’t know if there is a recognition (by the province) of the severity of the problem.”
While bad behaviour has been seen across the province, here are three recent examples in the GTA where conduct of councillors has been under scrutiny.
In 2020 Brampton councillor Gurpreet Dhillon was found by the city’s integrity commissioner to have allegedly sexually harassed a fellow resident on a trade mission to Turkey.
At the time, Brampton council voted to ask Dhillon to resign and voted to apply the harshest penalties available to them under the Municipal Act — suspension of pay for 90 days.
The integrity commissioner’s report is not a finding of criminal wrongdoing or guilt, and the complainant’s allegations, which include sexual assault, have not been tested in court.
According to the lawyer for the woman, only identified as Jane Doe, a civil suit filed against Dhillon was later settled with a nondisclosure agreement put in place.
Dhillon and his legal team have denied the allegations, and he has remained steadfast that he would not resign. He continues to serve on council.
Dhillon’s case was one of two that spurred the province to call for a review of the code of conduct with the possibility of removal of an elected official.
Other Brampton councillors have faced numerous ethics investigations, and numerous city staff have been dismissed, including the city solicitor and the integrity commissioner — who has filed a judicial review of the decision to fire her.
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The council was also deeply divided in a power struggle around the issue of an outgoing councillor, Charmaine Williams. She, along with a majority of her colleagues, voted to appoint her successor before her seat was officially vacant. Mayor Patrick Brown and a number of councillors boycotted council for a month to prevent the appointment being finalized. Last month, a court found the pre-emptive appointment illegal, leaving the seat empty for now.
Mississauga council voted to dock veteran councillor Ron Starr 60 days’ pay last month after an integrity commissioner investigation report, which looked into allegations that he keyed a now-former councillor’s SUV last year.
In his report, commissioner Robert Swayze said that Starr “engaged in harassment against Councillor (Karen) Ras” and violated the city’s code of conduct when he vandalized Ras’s SUV.
In a statement after council’s decision, Starr said he was “disappointed and distraught by the outcome of today’s council meeting.”
“I maintain my innocence in this matter and will continue to fight to clear my name.”
His lawyer, Adriana Di Biase with Bisceglia & Associates Professional Corporation, said Starr would seek a judicial review.
“Our client fully intends to continue fighting the outcome of the integrity commissioner’s investigation, his report and the vote of city council regarding the recommended penalty,” Di Biase, told the Star.
In February, Ras had resigned from her seat and publicly accused Starr of vandalizing her SUV, prompting Swayze to investigate.
Ras’s lawyer, Kathryn Marshall, partner at Levitt Sheikh, told Mississauga News that “this entire process has been very frustrating and has taken way too long but ultimately, council made the right decision today.”
The recent election of a new mayor, David West, has brought some calm to the fractious council chambers of Richmond Hill, where even approving the agenda had been a contentious task.
In addition to rowdy council meetings, councillors have faced a slew of integrity commissioner investigations over this past term, including findings of trespassing on private property and bullying.
At the last council meeting of the year in July, the integrity commissioner brought forward a report where he investigated 11 workplace-related complaints from staff against regional councillor Carmine Perrelli, finding only three to be valid. The commissioner found the councillor breached the code of conduct, and recommended a financial penalty and a written apology be given to staff.
Council voted to dock Perrelli’s pay for 90 days. Perrelli has filed a lawsuit against the city asking a judge to quash the council decision. “The Application seeks to have those resolutions declared … illegal on the grounds that they are either beyond the jurisdiction of the municipality and/or passed in bad faith,” said his lawyer Stephen Thiele, in an email to the Star.
Perrelli was also named in a lawsuit filed by the former city manager, who is asking the city for nearly a million dollars over alleged workplace bullying and harassment by the regional councillor.
In a statement of defence, the city of Richmond Hill denied all of the allegations.
In an email to the Star, Thiele said: “The scandalous allegations made against Mr. Perrelli, which are the legal equivalent of a drive by smear given that Mr. Perrelli is not a party to the litigation and unable to defend against them, are false.”
The allegations have not been proven in court.
And this month, ward councillor Karen Cilevitz pleaded guilty to fraud under $5,000 and will serve a three-month conditional sentence.
Cilevitz was arrested in 2020 for an alleged scheme where $21,000 was transferred from the councillor’s new assistant to Cilevitz’s spouse. Charges against her spouse were dropped, and the councillor has voluntarily paid back full restitution to the city of Richmond Hill, according to the court.
Cilevitz remains councillor for Richmond Hill’s Ward 5.
with files from Sheila Wang and Steve Cornwell
Noor Javed is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering city news with interest in 905 municipal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @njaved
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