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Town Clerk surprised by revelations coming out in judicial inquiry

Hearings begin today with witness Sara Almas, clerk of the town of Collingwood.
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Clerk Sara Almas (left) is in the witness stand during today's judicial inquiry hearings. Erika Engel/CollingwoodToday

“Shock and disgust.”

Those are the words uttered by Collingwood Clerk Sara Almas as she came to the end of questioning by inquiry counsel and described her feelings about “conversations that happened” she didn’t know about before the inquiry document was released last week.

Almas was the first witness in the judicial inquiry hearings that began today.

The inquiry is investigating the sale of 50 per cent of Collus to Powerstream in 2012, and subsequent spending of the money received by the town in the sale.

Almas has been the town clerk since 2007.

Associate Counsel for the inquiry, John Mather, questioned Almas for more than an hour, bringing up documents included in the Foundation Document including pages from Almas’ notebook, an email to Almas from former Deputy Mayor Rick Lloyd, and an email from Paul Bonwick, copying Almas.

Notes and an email in the inquiry’s foundation document indicate Almas met with Bonwick in June 2011 when he asked about the municipal conflict of interest act, and whether he would be putting his sister, then-mayor Sandra Cooper, into a conflict by doing some work for Powerstream.

According to Almas, Bonwick told her the work was public relations and community outreach related.

“I said I cannot give you legal advice, you need to satisfy yourself,” said Almas. Adding she also mentioned the Municipal Conflict of Interest act did not include siblings in a list of relatives that would put a member of council in conflict.

Later, according to documents, Bonwick’s proposal to Powerstream was for his company “Compenso Communications” to provide an “early warning system,” to Powerstream by issue monitoring through “constant contact with municipal government leaders,” to aid with preparation of any proposals Powerstream intended to submit.

In what appears to be the Retainer signed by Powerstream to contract Bonwick’s services through Compenso Communications, Bonwick states he has disclosed the scope of his services and his retainer by Powerstream to the Mayor and Clerk of Collingwood.

In an email to Powerstream president and CEO, Bonwick wrote Almas provided her opinion on the “Provincial Conflict of Interest Act” and “was quite clear there is no conflict of interest.”

Almas told the Inquiry Counsel today she did bring the email to the attention of the town CAO Kim Wingrove at the time, because she was frustrated by Bonwick incorrectly identifying what should be the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, and because she said she was clear she could not provide a legal opinion or advice.

She did not respond to the email, and said she regretted it.

“In hindsight, I took his services differently than [Powerstream} did based on what Mr. Bonwick described would be his services,” said Almas. “I wish I had responded with an email just to be clear it was not a legal opinion or legal advice.”

Almas was also asked about council’s decision to fire Wingrove in 2012. She said she was shocked by the decision, and reported witnessing actions she considered to be intimidating and “potentially bullying” of Wingrove by Deputy Mayor Rick Lloyd and Councillor Ian Chadwick.

Almas also told counsel she was surprised to learn representatives of Powerstream were given a copy of the town’s bylaw prepared for the Share Purchase Agreement and Shareholders Agreement and Powerstream made changes to the bylaw before it went to council, according to information contained in the Foundation Document.

Mather asked if she would have expected Powerstream to have a hand in the final bylaw.

“Absolutely not,” said Almas. “This is the town’s bylaw and it’s how the town wants it … I was surprised to see it had been forwarded to Powerstream.”

One such change was to remove a clause stating staff would report back to council before the sale closed. Almas thought that was odd, but not bad.

Michael Watson, a lawyer representing Powerstream, cross-examined Almas and suggested Powerstream did a good thing by taking out a clause Almas thought was unusual.

“Is that fair?” asked Watson.

Almas did not agree.

Paul Bonwick, representing himself in the inquiry, also cross-examined Almas, asking why she didn’t feel she could respond to his email in June 2012.

“I just wish I had further clarified back to you,” said Almas.

Bonwick also asked how many other private sector businesses approach Almas in a “proactive step” to ask about potential conflicts of interest.

“No, very rarely, if ever,” said Almas.

Bonwick also raised a question about an email from former deputy mayor Rick Lloyd to Almas asking about the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act if his brother was to bid on a town project.

Almas replied stating the act does not refer to siblings, but stated she was not providing legal advice.

Lloyd forwarded the email to Bonwick, who used it in his initial discussions with Powerstream to reason his work with them would not be a conflict for his sister (Mayor Sandra Cooper).

“Would it not make sense that if [Lloyd] was concerned about his brother, that he would reach out to ask your opinion?” asked Bonwick.

“My frustration was in his deception,” said Almas. “It wasn’t meant for me, it was meant for you.”

The judicial inquiry hearing will continue tomorrow morning at 10 a.m. and Almas will return to the witness stand for further cross-examination.

The hearing will be live-streamed on Rogers TV and online here. Transcripts from hearings can be found on the inquiry website here at the end of each day.

Justice Frank Marrocco, the commissioner in this inquiry, stated the inquiry is different from a criminal or civil trial, but he can make findings of misconduct if he sees fit.

“I make findings of fact, and will have the opportunity to express my opinion about some of what I read or hear,” he said.

The policy and recommendation phase of the hearings take place in June.




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Erika Engel

About the Author: Erika Engel

Erika regularly covers all things news in Collingwood as a reporter, photographer and community editor.
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