Champlain Township’s Integrity Commissioner has found that a township councillor did not violate the municipal Code of Conduct and the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act (MCIA).

The complaint against Councillor Peter Barton was filed on December 5, 2019 by a township resident. The resident alleged that Barton was in a conflict of interest at the November 14, 2019 council meeting when he voted in favour of the township assisting the Vankleek Senior Citizen’s Manor with its plans to develop additional housing at its 79 Derby Avenue property in Vankleek Hill.  The township’s assistance is to be in the form of access for construction crews via the adjacent property that was formerly the day care centre.

The complainant alleged that Councillor Barton was in conflict of interest because his father Gary Barton is the president of the not-for-profit Vankleek Senior Citizens Manor corporation board.

In his report, Integrity Commissioner Jean-Jacques LaCombe outlined the sections of the MCIA that were applicable to the case.

Section two states that a councillor has a pecuniary interest if they are a shareholder, have a controlling interest, or are a member or employee of a body, which in this case, was the manor corporation.

LaCombe found that Councillor Barton had no direct or indirect pecuniary interest under section two because he had no direct involvement with the manor corporation and did not stand to benefit financially from the township granting it permission to use its property for construction site access.

Gary Barton does not receive any financial compensation for his role as president of the manor corporation.

Section three of the act applies if the parents or spouse of a councillor are involved.  As a result of the Councillor Barton’s father being president of the manor corporation board and allowing that the board would receive a minor benefit from the access through township property, he was deemed to have an indirect pecuniary interest.

Section four states that section five of the act does not apply when the pecuniary interest of a council member, whether direct or indirect, when the interest is so remote or insignificant that it cannot be reasonably regarded.  Section five requires councillors to declare a conflict of interest and temporarily leave the council meeting while the issue they have a pecuniary interest in is being discussed and motions regarding it are being voted upon.

LaCombe determined that in this case, section four of the MCIA was applicable because the indirect pecuniary interest was remote or insignificant.  He determined this because the township and manor corporation are receiving no monetary benefit from the agreement to use the land for site access, and that Gary Barton’s role with the manor corporation did not compromise Peter Barton’s ability to make an impartial decision.

LaCombe stated that council’s decision was made for “the greater good of the community as a whole.”

He also emphasized that both Councillor Barton and his father were always acting in good faith for the best interests of the community.

Council reacts

At the January 16 council meeting Councillor Barton thanked LaCombe for his efforts in resolving the situation.

“It was not something I appreciated being involved with,” Barton said.

The councillor’s concern was that the complainant was never identified in process.  He said the lack of identification made it difficult to determine if the complaint was frivolous, vexatious or politically motivated.

Barton said there is a lot of risk of integrity complaints being filed by citizens because councillors are often involved with other volunteer boards in the community.  He said it “handcuffs” councillors from getting involved.

Councillor Gérard Miner was concerned that people will leave all of their other community responsibilities if they become councillors.

Barton noted that the commissioner recommends changing the by-law to improve the code of conduct.  He said the actual problem is that the municipal act is not clear.

Councillor André Roy asked why the name of the complainant was withheld.

“The goal of the legislation is to encourage taxpayers to make a complaint if they feel it’s warranted,” replied LaCombe.  He referred to a similar case in Hawkesbury last year where the name was withheld and said citizens could fear consequences for having their names made public.

Roy asked if legislation prevents complainants’ names from being public.  LaCombe it is at the discretion of the commissioner.

“It would have a lot of bearing to me as to who made a complaint,” said Councillor Sarah Bigelow.

LaCombe questioned if publishing the name really affects the decision on whether there is a pecuniary interest or not.  Bigelow said it does.  LaCombe said it is not relevant for his purposes.  Bigelow said she is concerned about people who possibly have personal issues with councillors.

“What’s the harm in actually letting me know? I want to work against this litigious society we’re in today,” said Barton.

LaCombe said that if councillors want to be on other boards, chances are that there will be conflicts.

Councillor Jacques Lacelle asked if he was in conflict related to pecuniary interest because of his involvement with the L’Orignal Food Bank.  LaCombe said he is.

“So, I should resign from the food bank?” asked Lacelle.

“No.  Declare, don’t resign,” said LaCombe.