Secure storage of Tehkummah’s municipal records catalyst for special meetings calls

TEHKUMMAH—The reeve of Tehkummah’s council called an emergency council meeting for 8 pm on Sunday evening after discovering that the clerk-treasurer had removed files from the township office without seeking council’s permission to do so. That meeting was cancelled a half hour before it was scheduled, but a second call for an emergency meeting was issued by the reeve and scheduled for 7 pm Tuesday evening. A sign on the town office indicates that the office will be closed until further notice.

The reason for the emergency meeting call is Reeve Eric Russell’s belief that the township records have been spirited away by Clerk-Treasurer Karen Gerrard to an unknown location.

“I decided to call off the first meeting because it was felt that we should have the police there,” explained Reeve Russell when contacted at home by The Expositor Monday night. The reeve explained that given the current heated atmosphere, it was felt that a police presence might be necessary to maintain order.

“Last Friday I put the call out for Sunday,” confirmed the reeve. “We’ve got to find out where all our records are. Nobody is saying where they are. You can’t just take all the records to somewhere and not tell anyone where they are. Do you know where they are? I don’t.”

Reeve Russell alleges that all of the municipal records are gone and that the municipal staff have told him so. “They showed me the empty cupboards,” he maintained. “The cupboards are bare.”

Clerk-Treasurer Karen Gerrard confirmed that the municipal records destined for archive were removed to a secure location, as per the council’s direction through bylaw.

“The current 2017 financial files and 2017 and current working clerk’s files are still there,” she confirmed by email on Monday. “The 2016 and previous years financial files and clerk’s files (save and excepting for the 2016 accounts payable boxes) were taken away to the storage unit which is deemed to be the records centre.”

Ms. Gerrard noted that she has also sent files to an accounting firm. “I have transported the information requested by the accounting firm doing the financial review,” she wrote. “Municipal officers are obligated to cooperate with this review. The 2016 financial records were already audited.”

Reeve Russell maintains that the physical transportation of the files to the auditors for review was unwarranted. “I called them,” he said. “They told me they would be willing to come to the town offices to look at the files. Somebody took the boxes to Sudbury. Mark (Laberge of the accounting firm MNP LLP, which is conducting the financial review) said they took them (to Sudbury). No files should be taken without the council’s permission.” He suggested the removal of files from the office “contaminated them.” The reeve also maintained that the files dealing with the Government Road Bridge, a construction project that is currently the subject of legal wrangling between the town and the construction company, were removed. “(Councillor and Deputy Reeve) Paul (Bowerman) is the discoverer (Tehkummah’s representative for discovery on the dispute) for that and he is pretty upset,” said the reeve.

The reeve also questioned the timing of the move. “Why do it after hours?” he asked. “Why take them out the back door? She won’t say where they are and council wants them back in the office.”

“Access (to the files) is not denied,” maintained the clerk. “It is just that in order to access any document or record, a written request must be given to the clerk who will determine if the information can be released, subject to MFIPPA or FIPPA (Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act or Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act), and then, if it can be released, the document or record will be signed out of the Records Centre and brought to the municipal office.” Ms. Gerrard noted that procedure is clearly defined in Section 253 of the Ontario Municipal Act.

Ms. Gerrard maintained that she was acting in accordance with a direction of council from 2016 and expressed surprise at the sudden concern. In a letter sent to members of council she noted “I am in receipt of a letter from Reeve Eric Russell, which was emailed to me as of today’s date, regarding the location of the municipal records. It appears as though this matter has gotten blown out of proportion and created animosity. That was not my intent. Perhaps it may seem as if this was done in a clandestine manner, be assured that it was not. I was acting in the best interest of the municipality.”

Ms. Gerrard noted that the archival records of the municipality were being stored in an unsecured room, open to the public, in clear contravention of the law. “We were on a waiting list for a secure storage space,” she said. “As soon as one became available I took advantage of the opportunity to bring the municipality into compliance.”

Her letter to members of council states, “Those boxes contain information from the past 17 years or more, such as confidential tax account records, confidential previous employee files, along with financial records and general files. Other boxes of information were requested by the accounting firm conducting the financial review. The Municipal Act states that a municipality shall retain and preserve its records in a secure manner.  Having piles of boxes of documents in an open public area is not secure.”

As to concerns of how and when the documents were moved to storage, Ms. Gerrard stated that “although it may seem as if this was a ‘spur of the moment’ action, this action was taken when the opportunity became available. As I had time and method of transportation available, I entered into a rental agreement for the storage unit and relocated the boxes of documents.”

She went on to note in her letter that “The property where the storage unit is located has a security system and the storage unit is a secure locked unit with only the municipal administration having the key. The removal of the boxes of documents to a Records Centre was authorized through the Records Retention Bylaw.”

Ms. Gerrard went on to assure the councillors and reeve that “I do believe each councillor has the right of access to all township documents that are necessary to carry out his or her duty as a councillor. However, access must be done through the clerk (see section 253 of the Municipal Act), and the clerk has to make the appropriate decision whether access should be restricted for any reason, such as the restrictions imposed under the MFIPPA legislation.”

Ms. Gerrard went on to assert that “I would not consider my decision to be irresponsible or self-serving—my decision was based on the need for a secure storage location of municipal records. Those documents are not current working files, and are tagged for storage.”

Ms. Gerrard struck a conciliatory note with councillors, but also stuck to her guns in regards to her responsibilities under the relevant legislation and the need for the appropriate authorizations for any actions taken. “I apologize if my actions taken under the authority given to me by the Municipal Act and municipal bylaw has caused concern for any member of council or staff. That was not my intent. My actions are always taken with regards to the best interest of the municipality. I can be accused of acting quickly, perhaps too quickly, and I apologize for that.” But added that “The letter delivered to me was from Reeve Eric Russell, and does not appear to be endorsed by council.”

The clerk-treasurer then went on to request direction from council, presenting two options for their consideration: “Leave the boxes of municipal documents in the storage unit, with the procedure that access to any municipal record that is stored in the storage unit will require a written request to the clerk-treasurer. Once the document or record has been retrieved, it will be logged out and then logged in when returned, or, direct that the boxes of documents be returned to the municipal office meeting area with written procedural instruction given to staff that access to any of the boxes will only be permitted through a written request to the clerk-treasurer.  While the boxes of documents are in any area that is accessible by the general public, the door to that room shall remain closed and locked.”

As for the closure of the municipal offices, Reeve Russell confirmed that it was he that took that action. “The office is closed until we get this straightened out,” he said. As to whether he had the authority to take such action, the reeve said “I don’t know if it’s right, but the office is closed today (Monday) and it is closed tomorrow (Tuesday). Maybe I will get in trouble, I don’t know.” In any event, the reeve felt closing the municipal offices was a necessary precaution.

Reeve Russell said that he was greatly concerned about the direction and current state of affairs at the town. “If this keeps going on there will be no township left,” he said. “Nobody seems to have any common sense. Nobody is saying what it is they want.”

Councillor Ron Hierons also voiced his concerns about the state of affairs in the town, but voiced strong support for the clerk. “She is doing everything she can by the book,” he said. “Things have been a mess for a long time and she is trying to straighten everything out.”

Councillor Hierons challenged the validity of the reeve’s emergency meeting call. “There is no agenda, there is no notice, there are proper rules and procedures that need to be followed.” He cited the town’s own bylaws (Procedural Policy Bylaw 2008-10) specifically Paragraph 2: “The rules and regulations of the procedural policy bylaw shall be observed in all proceedings of council.” Paragraph 5: “The only business to be dealt with is that which is listed in the notice of a special meeting.” Paragraph 11: “Agenda must be presented” and Paragraph 41: “Notice – Agenda must be posted for public viewing in the municipal office at least two working days prior to the scheduled meeting.”

Reeve Russell maintained that he had “posted posters around town about the meeting” and that the reason for the meeting was “municipal records and personnel.”

The reeve indicated that the Tuesday evening meeting was intended to be an in camera session.