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‘It’s unfortunate what happened in Collingwood’: County council discusses judicial inquiry

While councillors expressed concerns around implementing some of the recommendations in their own municipalities, they voted to support Collingwood’s efforts and consider making changes
2020-03-11 County JO-002
County of Simcoe council chambers. Jessica Owen/BarrieToday

It came down to a single word change, but County of Simcoe council has put its support behind Collingwood in advocating to the province for the recommendations that came out of the Collingwood Judicial Inquiry.

Zarah Walpole, director of legal services with the County of Simcoe, provided a staff report and legal opinion to county councillors during Tuesday’s committee of the whole meeting concerning some of the recommendations out of the judicial inquiry report.

Councillors voted to support the Town of Collingwood’s efforts to advocate to the province regarding 17 of the recommendations which pertain specifically to provincial legislation.

Collingwood Mayor Brian Saunderson confirmed this week he is in talks with Simcoe North MPP Jill Dunlop regarding possible provincial changes to the Municipal Act and the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act. Dunlop is currently holding round-tables with a variety of municipal stakeholders on how to strengthen accountability measures province-wide.

“This is about starting a conversation at the province,” said Saunderson. “We learn from past experiences. This isn’t an exercise of looking in the rear-view mirror, this is an exercise in looking forward. By asking the province to look at the recommendations, we’re encouraging a discussion to look at best practices to make sure these types of events don’t happen.”

The Collingwood Judicial Inquiry report, written by the commissioner, Associate Chief Justice Frank Marrocco, contains over 300 recommendations related to municipal governance.

The inquiry was asked to examine two major transactions that the Town of Collingwood engaged in under the leadership of its 2010-2014 municipal council: the sale of a 50 per cent interest in the town’s electric utility, and the construction of recreation facilities. The inquiry concluded that undisclosed conflicts, unfair procurements, and lack of transparency stained both transactions.

Of the 306 recommendations, county councillors were looking specifically at 17 that require provincial action to implement.

While the motion up for debate initially called for councillors to also implement changes in their own municipalities, an amendment was requested by Springwater Deputy Mayor Jennifer Coughlin that they instead "consider" implementing changes, as councillors did not agree on all the recommendations.

“I think it goes too far with the suggestion of implementation,” said Springwater Mayor Don Allen.

Wasaga Beach Deputy Mayor Sylvia Bray shared comments by herself and Wasaga Beach Mayor Nina Bifolchi, who was not in attendance for the discussion.

“There are many responsible council members, municipalities and their staff who have put policies and practices in place to keep ethics at the forefront. However, even with these in place, those who are going to break the rules still will,” said Bray. “By supporting this motion... I don’t want it to be construed as an admission that we think we are not acting ethically.”

“Collingwood had some issues. We can’t and don’t deserve to all be lumped into that same category,” said Bray.

Bray added that the province doesn’t have a whistleblower line, and that perhaps one should be implemented at the provincial level.

“It’s almost criminal that Collingwood had to live through what they lived through for four years... and that it took a judicial inquiry and at the end of it, there’s just a bunch of recommendations that may or may not ever go into place,” she said.

Specifically, some councillors raised concerns a recommendation suggesting annual proactive financial disclosure of private interests of elected municipal officials.

“I can’t support the motion because it’s very specific that we want to support the changes recommended by the judicial inquiry, and many of them, I do not,” said Ramara Mayor Basil Clarke. “I think we’re all fine with taking a look at everything in principle, but that’s not what this motion says. It’s unfortunate what happened in Collingwood.”

At a previous meeting, county council requested that county legal staff review the Collingwood Judicial Inquiry and report back regarding any legal or financial risks associated with supporting the recommendations.

County of Simcoe's legal counsel concluded that the recommendations are generally supportable in principle subject to the province engaging in consultation with municipalities and other stakeholder groups to ensure that any changes to the Municipal Act and Municipal Conflict of Interest Act result in the goals of increased transparency and public trust.

The Town of Collingwood had implemented a significant number of the recommendations before the final report was issued, however, a number of the recommendations cannot be implemented at the municipal level and require provincial action.

“It was a good discussion. Coun. Coughlin’s amendment, I consider a friendly amendment. It bridged over some of the concerns other councillors had,” said Saunderson after the meeting.

On Wednesday, the province announced it has launched a 90-day consultation for the general public to obtain feedback on how to strengthen municipal codes of conduct, with the support of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO).

Comments for the consultation are welcome through the online survey by July 15. It can be accessed here.

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Jessica Owen

About the Author: Jessica Owen

Jessica Owen brings 15 years of experience to her role as reporter for Village Media, primarily covering Collingwood and education.
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