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Council pursuing legal action against unidentified individuals based on judicial inquiry findings

Following a closed session meeting, council voted 7-2 to hire law firm to 'make accountability happen'
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In a recorded vote, seven council members were in favour if hiring BLG to pursue legal action against individuals involved in the 2012 Collus share sale decision and subsequent decisions to spend the proceeds on fabric membrane structures.

The Town of Collingwood has hired a legal team to pursue further action against individuals involved in the 2012 Collus share sale and the decision to use the proceeds of the sale to sole-source two fabric membrane structures. 

The decision comes more than eight months after the final report from the Collingwood Judicial Inquiry that investigated both those matters and resulted in a 900 report by the inquiry commissioner Justice Frank Marrocco. 

During a meeting this evening (July 19), council voted to hire Borden Ladner Gervais LLP (BLG) after hearing from the firm in a June 24 closed meeting about possible legal actions to take in follow-up to the findings of the judicial inquiry report. 

The official motion approved tonight stated BLG would be tasked with preparing materials to achieve the town's objective of accountability of various parties based on the findings made by Justice Frank Marrocco. 

"With Justice Marrocco's report what we got was a detailed finding of fact about what happened, when it happened, and how it happened," said Mayor Brian Saunderson, the lone council member to speak publicly about tonight's vote. "What we didn't get was really direct accountability from those involved." 

Justice Marrocco presided over the Collingwood Judicial Inquiry from 2018 to 2020 and concluded the inquiry with a 900-page report containing more than 300 recommendations for changes to municipal and provincial policies and practices around council and staff roles and responsibility, municipal procurement, and general procedures. 

The inquiry was called to investigate the 2012 share sale of 50 per cent of the town's electric utility (Collus) to Powerstream and the subsequent decisions that led to the town sole-sourcing two fabric membrane structures  – one for Centennial Aquatic Centre and one for Central Park Arena. 

Among Marrocco's findings, he observed decisions made outside of the public council meetings, failures to disclose conflicts of interest, and transactions open to improper influence that undermined the town's reputation. 

"Several long-time residents and well-known public figures were at the centre of events examined by the inquiry," states Marrocco in his report. "In particular, Mayor Sandra Cooper, her brother Paul Bonwick, Mr. Bonwick's friend and former business associate (former) Deputy Mayor Rick Lloyd, and Mr. Bonwick's friend Ed Houghton, who was concurrently the town's executive director of engineering and public works, the president and CEO of Collus Power, the president and CEO of the town's water utility, and for a year beginning in April 2012, the town's acting chief administrative officer." 

Council voted 7-2 in favour of hiring BLG in a non-standard procurement (non-competitive) to prepare for future legal actions, but did not name any of the individuals it plans to include in the potential lawsuits.

"This council has looked to BLG to provide us with input on how we can effectively make accountability happen for those involved," said Saunderson. "The steps we're taking tonight are to pursue that accountability to those who benefited and acted in ways that were contrary to this municipality's interest." 

Saunderson said the inquiry was not just about the town's past, but about future costs as well. 

"The past continues to haunt us, continues to cost our taxpayers annually, and will continue to cost annually until we take steps to rectify that by creating new facilities," said Saunderson. 

Councillors Deb Doherty and Tina Comi voted against the motion to hire BLG. Both have publicly stated at past meetings they did not want to spend any more town money on the inquiry. They did not speak to the matter at the July 19 meeting. 

"The quest for accountability is not one taken lightly," said Saunderson. "It's one this council has, after long discussion, decided to pursue within the cost restrictions we can afford." 

Based on information compiled on June 30, 2021 and posted to the town's website, the Town of Collingwood has spent more than $8.2 million on the Collingwood Judicial Inquiry. More than half the total ($4.67 million) was for legal costs.

In May, council approved a limit of $15,000 for BLG to prepare a report on potential actions against parties related to the judicial inquiry. The report came to council in closed session in June, and tonight's decision was based on advice council received in that June 24 closed meeting.