Billings councillor says recent integrity investigations stem from ‘vexatious and frivolous’ claims

Township of Billings

KAGAWONG—While Billings Township council has accepted the Integrity Commissioner Office reports that found no fault with Billings Councillors Sharon Alkenbrack and Sharon Jackson on a complaint from a member of the public that they were in contravention of the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act (MCIA) and the Township of Billings Code of Conduct, and a separate ruling on a complaint that Paul Darlaston, an ad hoc committee member,  that found he was not in breach of Billings Code of Conduct, council raised concerns with the complaints that were lodged, indicating they were frivolous and vexatious in nature and cost the taxpayers of the township thousands of dollars.

“After reading the integrity commissioner’s reports and finding out the nature of the complaints I was extremely disappointed that all complaints were petty and frivolous in nature,” stated Councillor Bryan Barker, at a council meeting last week. “More disturbing is what it has cost the taxpayers, the better part of $20,000 and potentially more to come. There was a total of nine complaints with a potential investigative cost of $10,000 per complaint. That’s a big piece of our limited budget and it’s money that could have been better spent elsewhere.”      

“Before we vote on the two resolutions, perhaps all members of council would like to provide comments on the report, recommendations and findings,” said Billings Mayor Ian Anderson, at  a council meeting last week. “Staff, in a memorandum to council, suggest to put in place recommendations that were made by Expertise for Municipalities (E4M), the integrity commissioner for Billings.”

“So I went down through each item in the integrity commissioner report,” said Councillor Sharon Alkenbrack. “With reference to agenda A, members of committees, local boards, council, and other appointed bodies with review and amend the code of conduct does this apply to all our committees like the museum board, the library board and other boards like the cemetery board?”

“With reference to items C and D, the role of the integrity commissioner and the process of making complaints. This position should be clarified because as it stands now there is the possibility the role of the commissioner could be used for personal vendettas or used in a self-serving attack on elected officials,” said Councillor Alkenbrack. “Is there a way that we could implement a requirement that complaints made that are found to be frivolous and vexatious, that the complainant be required to pay a percentage of the costs?”

“Are we able to establish a cost to file a complaint and have it reimbursed if the complaint is found to be legitimate? The complaints we are dealing with has to date cost our community $19,969, and that’s not the final invoice. Our community could have used those funds for so many other projects,” said Councillor Alkenbrack.

It was  pointed out by township clerk Kathy McDonald that “there will be more costs on the reports that were carried out.”

Mayor Anderson said, “some of those questions require research. I think we would be in agreement on a number of issues, and improvements that need to be in place to provide better protection for council and committees.”

“I think I can answer some of the questions Councillor Alkenbrack has raised,” said Councillor Bryan Barker. He explained he had been part of a Northern Ontario municipal leaders Zoom meeting with MPP Jill Dunlop, who told the group the government was looking at ways to tighten legislation and make politicians more accountable. However, the Northern municipal politicians raised concerns with this and that any propensity of complaints against municipal councils, especially if they are proven to be trivial, would eat away at small Northern municipal council budgets because of the costs of these investigations. However, no one wants to discourage people from coming forward with concerns and complaints, although if those who make the complaints are identified publicly, they make not put forward a complaint.

“And we as council don’t want to discourage people coming forward with their concerns,” said Councillor Barker. However, “I would encourage everyone to read the integrity commissioner’s report in its entirety and see where and why these tax dollars were spent. The first complaint is regarding an editorial that was written in the Recorder. (Editor’s Note: the document was actually a letter to the editor.) In my opinion, if you’re going to put yourself out there by way of editorials or social media then you better be prepared for a rebuttal, not everyone is going to support what you have to say. In this case the complaint was against a member of the climate action committee. The investigators report suggested that as a council and committee members should be held to a higher standard. I certainly support that notion, however, even members of committees have the right to express their opinion as a member of the community … If they wish to express a personal opinion, in public, they must expressly note that it is their personal opinion not an opinion of council or the township.” 

“Complaints against Councillors Alkenbrack and Jackson are basically the same, both alleged contravention of the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act and breaches of Code of Conduct, so I’ll comment generally on both,” said Councillor Barker. “Again,  I find all the complaints to be petty and frivolous in nature. Once again costing the taxpayers precious dollars. The investigators found the witnesses, Councillors Alkenbrack and Jackson, to be credible. They participated in the investigation, provided supporting evidence, and cooperated with the requests for additional information.”

“However, the investigators noted that they found the applicant to be somewhat credible and that the applicant’s complaints seemed to be more than just a citizen genuinely concerned that a member of council contravened the MCIA. The investigator considered the allegations with some caution. In my eyes, that statement sums up the investigations and speaks volumes,” said Councillor Barker. “The bottom line is both Councillor Alkenbrack and Councillor Jackson were found not to be in contravention of either the MCIA or Code of Conduct.”

Councilor Barker added, “everyone has the right to complain and should expect elected officials to be held to a higher standard, however, at this time there are no provisions reporting to the integrity commissioner addressing frivolous and vexatious complaints and unfortunately at the end of the day the taxpayers are left holding the proverbial bag.”

“I am fully in agreement with Councillor Barker,” stated Councillor Michael Hunt.  

Councillor Jackson said, “Councillor Barker spoke about the taxpayers and the very high costs involved. And our character and credibility have been put to the test. The Code of Conduct is there for a reason, and the right process. It has been a long year and I appreciate all the comments that have been made by all the councillors.”

Mayor Anderson said, “first of all, regarding recommendations from staff, I see a lot of value in most and that updates are needed. In the recommendations there was reference to the Health and Safety act and the role of the integrity commissioner process in making complaints which definitely can’t be overstated. It could have saved our municipality a lot of money. We need to update and amend our code of conduct and complaint policy. We need to provide education to the public on the Conflict of Interest Act and what is and what is not a conflict of interest. Councillor Jackson touched on the affects she has felt with these complaints on a personal level and this also cannot be understated. This has been before us for almost a year as council, and it has taken up a lot of staff time and efforts on this as well.” 

Mayor Anderson  said, “social media has given the ability, sadly, for individuals to share strong opinions regardless of whether or not they are factual. In municipal politics, no matter what you do someone will always talk about you. Someone will always question your judgement. Someone will always doubt you, so, make the choices you can live with and carry on.”

Council passed two motions, one to accept the integrity commissionor’s reports and to instruct township staff to rewrite the code of conduct bylaw, taking in information from the integrity commissioner’s report. The reports made the recommendation that the township update the Code of Conduct to include the following: 1. That council review and update/amend the Code of Conduct to include at a minimum: a) specific reference to members of committees, working groups or other council appointed bodies that fall outside of the common understanding of a local board; b) A reference to the Occupational Health and Safety Act as well as other ethical policies adopted by council; c) The role of the integrity commissioner; d) the process for making a complaint regarding the behaviour of a member; e) a definition of what would constitute a frivolous or vexatious complaint; f) a requirement for the integrity commissioner to conduct a preliminary review before a full inquiry; g) a requirement for training of members and formal system/process for documenting/acknowledging when a member has received training; h) a mandatory review, and 2)  review/update/adopt a communications policy that clearly states council’s expectations with respect to media/social media and ensure members receive training on the policy.”