Harder conflict issue paints clear divide through council

By Jake Davies - West Carleton Online

CITY HALL – Behind the decorum and procedure of council proceedings today (June 23) was a level of tension and frustration barely contained below the surface as City of Ottawa council debated its own integrity commissioner’s report on Coun. Jan Harder’s relationship with The Stirling Group.

The consultancy agency is led by registered lobbyist Jack Stirling who Harder has a long relationship with. His daughter Alison Clarke worked for Harder.

City of Ottawa integrity commissioner Robert Marleau’s report found Stirling’s firm was on contract to Harder for years while he represented private planning clients at city hall and even personally represented them at the committee Harder chaired.

Marleau recommends Harder lose her seat on planning committee over the perceived conflict of interest; be docked 15 days’ pay; reimburse her legal fees; and declare work performed by The Stirling Group for free as a benefit under the city’s gift registry.

Marleau feels Harder’s relationship with Clarke’s father, Jack Stirling, and came to the conclusion that the councillor’s connection to The Stirling Group had “tainted” the city’s planning process.

Marleau found Harder received free services from The Stirling Group for four months without a signed contract in. The report believed this work, worth roughly $12,000, was a benefit for Harder she must disclose in the city’s registry for gifts, benefits and hospitality.

“This could create an expectation of favourable treatment in the future, or be perceived as creating some influence,” Marleau wrote in his report.

Harder’s legal representation submitted its own opinion garnered from a Toronto lawyer specializing in municipal and planning law stating it did not believe this was not a serious enough infraction to the council code of conduct.

Today (June 23), council debated the issue and Marleau’s report to council in a simmering online council meeting.

But moments before the debate began, Barrhaven Coun. Jan Harder resigned her position as chair of the Planning committee “effective immediately.”

Harder claimed it had nothing to do with the report and everything to do with “hyper-aggressive online attacks threatens to curtail the city-building work that must continue.”

She believes the “endless noise and innuendo” was “an online campaign from an agenda-driven lobby group.”

Harder did not name the group.

Following her statement, Mayor Jim Watson, seconded by Coun. Eli El-Chantiry, introduced a motion several other councillors believed absolved Harder of all responsibility.

Watson was clear to point out the integrity commissioner’s report is just a recommendation and council could accept or reject whatever parts of the report it wanted. It also referenced Harder’s resignation only moments before.

The motion recommended city staff develop an ethical framework for members’ staff; enhance the procedure for consultant procurement; undertake a review of the code of conduct for council and lobbyists; and other procedure related issues.

There was no mention of punitory action towards Harder, or any mention of the councillor at all.

Several councillors tabled motions. Coun. Carole Anne Meehan, seconded by Diane Deans, asking for a legal, independent review of recent council decisions “of which The Stirling Group had been involved.”

Coun. Jeff Lieper had a motion as well, asking council move in to committee of the whole due to the “highly legal” nature of the issue. This would suspend the “speak once rule” he said.

Council voted 14-10 to not move in to committee of the whole.

Coun. Sean Menard also had a motion requesting the city introduce post-employment lobbying restrictions.

As debate began, Coun. Rick Chiarelli wanted to hear the integrity commissioner’s evidence.

“What I have found is there was a real or apparent conflict of interest,” Marleau said. “That in itself is not a wrong-doing. We all have real or apparent conflicts of interest. It’s how you deal with those conflicts of interest that’s important. The Municipal Act says you should avoid real and apparent conflicts of interest. I found in this case the duty to avoid conflict lacking.”

Meehan wanted to address the mayor’s motion which ratcheted up the tension.

“If we accept your motion, we are basically throwing out any of the integrity commissioner’s recommendations,” she said citing his professional experience. “You are eminently qualified to investigate and rule on this matter. “I am one of the shorter term councillors on this table but one of the things I have learned during my mandate s that when it comes to a staff report it is basically gospel.”

Meehan then asked the clerk if there had ever been an integrity commissioner’s report in Marleau’s tenure starting in 2012 that was rejected by council.

“Not that I recall,” city clerk Rick O’Connor replied.

Coun. Catherine McKenney addressed the mayor’s motion.

“What you’re asking us to do essentially is say, nothing went wrong here,” she said. “We’re not going to say in any way as a council what happened was wrong. It is so obvious, there are two sets of rules at this city. When you all though it was one of us that leaked that memo, you were going to call in the police. When we found out it was somebody who supports you (Coun. Tim Tierney), sorry, it’s all okay. You can break election rules, and sorry is all it takes. You can harass a woman in your ward, using police resources. But, sorry, no worries. Conflict of interest broken. Public trust broken in our planning and development process. You’re not sorry? It’s absolutely unbelievable. We are being asked by the mayor to put aside every single one of the findings by the integrity commissioner. By dismissing everything in the report, you’re residents will have no reason to trust in the process of the City of Ottawa.”

Coun. Jeff Lieper asked if Marleau felt “Harder should have reasonable apprehended hiring an employee of a development lobbyist in their office when said development lobbyist is often appearing before the committee that you chair should have reasonably given rise to concern over apparent conflict of interest?”

“Correct,” Marleau replied.

He added the investigator found emails between the councillor and The Stirling Group where “they were made aware of the perception in March 2019 to questions addressed to the councillor by a reporter, and in that exchange of emails, the response was ‘I will not respond.’ And the same response came from The Stirling Group. That is an inflection point where there is a direct communication to the respondent that there was a perception that needed to be managed.”

Marleau said factors such as an error in judgement were taken in to account in his recommendation.

Lieper hoped council would not pass the Watson motion without some form of reprimand for Harder.

“The actions were wrong,” he said.

Coun. Theresa Kavanaugh asked the mayor why he was rejecting the commissioner’s recommendations.

“I put forward this replacement motion and I stand by it,” he said.

Coun. Diane Deans was far less subtle.

“I did not here Coun. Harder acknowledge the conflict of interest she was found in,” she said. “What is at stake is public trust and confidence in this council. Coun. McKenney told it exactly how it is with this council. There are two sets or rules. The rules that apply to the Watson club, and the rules that apply to the rest of us. And frankly the rules that apply to the Watson club is there are no consequences for your actions. You Mr. Mayor don’t even feel like you have to explain that. If that was me, if that was Coun. McKenney, if that was Coun. Menard, Coun. Meehan, if it was a whole bunch of other councillors who don’t take their direction from you on every single vote, there would be no question the recommendations would be applied to the full extent. The public is losing faith and trust in this council and with good reason. The rules have to apply fairly to everyone. The commissioner has found a conflict of interest, the public sees the conflict of interest. I as a councillor sees the conflict of interest, yet you Mr. Mayor are asking this council to set aside any restitution for that and to move on, there’s nothing here to see. Well, there’s plenty here to see.”

In the end, Coun. Jenna Sudds moved to add Harder be reprimanded, which is a public acknowledgement the councillor did something wrong.

Before the vote, Watson made a point of talking about Harder’s tenure and service as a councillor saying she has a “passion for city and community building that knows no bounds. Jan leads with her heart and the last few days have been a strain on her.”

Watson says the punitive action was Harder’s resignation from the chair and Planning committee “something she loved doing.”

The motion passed 14 to 9. 

Harder will not have to declare the $12,000 on the gift registry — significant because councillors are not allowed to accept gifts from registered lobbyists — nor would she lose 15 days of pay, as recommended in the report.

Harder, who has chaired planning committee since 2014, also doesn’t have to reimburse her legal fees, which totalled $7,100 as of the end of April.

Council briefs

City council approved a plan for OC Transpo to convert its bus fleet to zero-emission buses. The city will enter into a loan agreement with the Canada Infrastructure Bank and will seek funding from Infrastructure Canada to gradually convert the bus fleet in a way that is affordable under the city’s long-range financial plan for transit. All future bus purchases will be for zero-emission buses, provided they meet operational needs.

If funding is secured, OC Transpo will purchase 74 40-foot battery-electric buses and charging infrastructure as part of the city’s 2022 capital budget. The buses would be put into service in 2023, joining four zero-emission electric buses being put into service later this year. OC Transpo aims to phase in 450 zero-emission buses by 2027 and have a fully electric bus fleet by 2036.

Council approved an updated workplan for Children’s Services for 2021 and 2022, revised to reflect the COVID-19 pandemic response and recovery. The pandemic has had significant impacts on Ottawa’s child-care and early years sector, and the updated workplan will address pandemic recovery and response actions through 2022.

A recent review of the city’s 10 child-care centres determined that only one is not meeting the Council-approved mandate to serve families facing systemic challenges in parts of Ottawa where there are not enough child-care spaces to meet demand. Council directed staff to develop a plan to maintain and transition the francophone child-care services at the Centre éducatif Pinocchio, located between Lowertown and New Edinburgh, to a high needs area. Staff will work with a not-for-profit provider to maintain francophone child-care services at the Pinocchio location.

Council also approved renaming the Kanata Town Centre Pedestrian Bridge over Highway 417 the Marianne Wilkinson Bridge in honour of the former Kanata councillor. Wilkinson has dedicated nearly 50 years to municipal politics, serving as the first Mayor of Kanata and as a councillor for Kanata North Ward. She was instrumental in getting the bridge built, helping connect North and South Kanata.

For more information on city programs and services, visit ottawa.ca or call 311 (TTY: 613-580-2401).

Print Friendly, PDF & Email