• Tue. Nov 29th, 2022

Niagara Falls Regional Councilor Calls for Changes to ‘Armed’ Integrity Commission Complaints Process

ByChad J. Johnson

Sep 30, 2022

The Niagara Region Integrity Commissioner complaints process has left Niagara Falls County. Bob Gale with his own complaints.

Gale drafted a motion at last week’s regional council meeting which he said would improve the integrity commissioner code of conduct investigations – and help prevent the process from being “weaponized” for political purposes.

“I don’t think councilors should file suits against other councilors free of charge if found innocent – let the voters decide,” Gale said in an interview. “In this case, I have been found innocent after a thorough investigation. I am fed up with advisers suing me for asking the proper questions on behalf of taxpayers and businesses who feel they have been wronged.

Gale said he received four complaints against him during his two terms on the regional council. Three were fired, Gale said. The other, in his first term, ended in apologies to save taxpayers’ money.

Gale introduced the motion by referring to three short emails he received as part of a freedom of information request. He also offered to show them to anyone who contacted him.

St. Catharines County Brian Heit wrote the emails to the region’s administrative manager, Ron Tripp.

In the first, Heit said, “Bob didn’t answer me.” The second said, “I thought I would make Gale sweat a bit,” and the third said, “Let me know if I can use your answers in my complaint to the Integrity Commissioner???”

Gale said the emails relate to a roughly 10-month investigation by the Integrity Commissioner that has not been made public, but concluded that Gale did not breach the code of conduct.

“Why did a staff executive help a regional councilor file a complaint against another regional councillor? Gale said. “And why was the intention to sweat a little ‘Gale?'”

Tripp said complaints to the Integrity Commissioner are a confidential process and that he would not provide any comments related to a specific Integrity Commissioner complaint.

“What I can tell you is that I have never collaborated with a regional council member on an Integrity Commissioner complaint,” Tripp said.

Heit said advisers are not permitted to address code of conduct investigations while they are ongoing to protect the confidentiality of the process and those involved. Advisors also cannot comment on unsubstantiated investigations that the commissioner decides not to publish.

Heit clarified the “make Gale sweat” remark in the emails, which were sent in late 2020 and early 2021.

Heit said he emailed Gale about a regional council meeting where Heit believed Gale violated council rules. Gale did not respond.

“I was frustrated that he wasn’t responding to my emails,” Heit said. “If someone had sent me that email, I would have replied and said something like, ‘Hang on, you’re wrong. I do not agree with you.’

“He doesn’t say anything. A few days later I decided to send this to Ron Tripp – and Bob Gale – that way he knows I’ve contacted the staff. The intent behind this was to try to bring him to respect the policies of the board.

“Instead, I witnessed Bob Gale threatening and accusing staff of wrongdoing and costing taxpayers thousands of hours of staff time for witch hunts while discrediting staff and council for our decisions.”

Heit sent the emails while Gale was part of a campaign to keep staff’s feet under fire over a pair of regional contracts. The first concerned the handling of biosolids from the Region’s wastewater treatment facilities. The second was to purchase equipment to upgrade the Port Dalhousie wastewater treatment plant. Either way, Gale said the region could get a much better deal.

Gale thought there were problems, and possible corruption, in the tender and was not shy about saying so.

However, a subsequent whistleblower investigation found “no evidence of wrongdoing” and only minor process issues had previously been reported by staff.

Heit said the councilors represent the region and each member is responsible for following the processes and procedures established by a majority vote of the council.

“We should handle things appropriately, but if there is a problem, the Integrity Commissioner would be the person to fix it,” Heit said. “The Integrity Commissioner is the only recourse for us, but I will not discuss a complaint that I may or may not have made because it violates the rules.”

Heit refuted the allegation that staff were helping him file a complaint.

“It doesn’t matter if I file a complaint or not,” Heit said. “I regularly go to staff asking for information or copies of reports all the time. It’s their job, and counselors do it regularly.

Any resident (including counsellors) may file a complaint with the Integrity Commissioner if they witness counselor behavior or activity that violates the code of conductwhich sets parameters for advisor behavior and outlines their responsibilities.

Complaints to the Integrity Commissioner and investigations are meant to be kept confidential.

Once the investigation is complete, the Commissioner’s findings and recommendations for sanctions are made public. However, if the complaint is dismissed, the commissioner can decide whether the investigation should be made public.

Gale said it’s a process the board needs to fix.

His motion, which has been referred to the corporate services committee for further study, would see all completed reports – whether or not there was a breach of the code of conduct – reported to the board and the public.

If the complaint is found to be unfounded, the advisors may submit the legal fees incurred to the audit committee for review. Gale’s motion would also see the councilor who filed the unsubstantiated complaint pay the costs of the investigation.

He would see the cost of individual investigations revealed in the commissioner’s annual report, which currently only presents the total as a lump sum.

Parts of Gale’s motion could face an uphill battle, as the board has already considered the issue and voted on an expense policy that specifically excludes reimbursement of a counselor’s legal fees if they relate to a code of conduct complaint.

Grimsby County Wayne Fertich agreed that in cases where the complaint is not substantiated, the complainant councilor should foot the bill for the investigation.

“The reason I say this is because our municipality (Grimsby) has been through so many councilor feuds,” Fertich said. “We have to try to stop that, and I think we can stop it by saying, ‘If you lose, you pay.

“And if it’s thousands of dollars, it can make some people smarter.”

Lincoln County’s Rob Foster warned council that it needs to carefully consider policy changes, particularly when it comes to charging people fees for Integrity Commissioner investigations.

“I don’t like on-the-fly changes,” Foster said. “With no disrespect, but I think I see where to advise him. Gale tries to go with that. The problem is that we don’t have a legal opinion on this particular change.

“Procedurally, and I think I know the Municipalities Act as well as anyone, and this amendment cannot be defended under the Municipalities Act.

“So we need to have our lawyers look into the matter carefully and come back to us with ideas on this moving forward.

“Advice. Fertich puts up with crazy stuff in Grimsby, and these people have been absolutely crazy with each other.

“I will probably get an investigation from the Integrity Commissioner for calling them crazy, but they attacked each other for no apparent reason other than politics.

“If anyone feels strong enough to file a commission or an integrity complaint, so be it. I think it’s up to the regional councilor whether he thinks that’s blatant enough or not.