Newsletter Signup

Burlington Council Approves Penalties Recommended by Integrity Commissioner for Councillor’s Confidentiality Breaches

Council Approved - Recommendations of Integrity Commissioner Report - TW_1

At our City Council meeting on Tuesday, April 19, Council voted 6-0 to approve the recommendations from the Integrity Commissioner to suspend Councillor Shawna Stolte’s pay for five days for two breaches of the City of Burlington’s Council Code of Good Governance, for inappropriately releasing confidential information. Councillor Stolte declared a conflict as she was the subject of the Integrity Commissioner’s report. She therefore could not vote on the matter but could participate in discussion.

In his report, the Integrity Commissioner stated, “Disclosure of confidential information is the kind of transgression that attracts a monetary sanction because [it] fundamentally undermines the trust required for councils to function property and for the public to maintain respect for council’s adherence to ethical standards.” [Clause 76 in the Integrity Commissioner’s report]

In his remarks at council, the Integrity Commissioner stated the financial penalty is meant as a “corrective” measure, to correct the behaviour, rather than a punitive one. He said the amount of the penalty was based in part on expressed contrition by the Councillor when conducting their investigation.

However, he was critical of subsequent comments made by the Councillor after the report was released — a column in the Hamilton Spectator and on social media — claiming the report “vindicated” her. He said these additional comments would warrant Council suspending her pay up to 30 days.

Council chose to impose the minimum five-day penalty.

Additional background and links to the report, the council meeting, and supplementary information is below.

MY TAKE:

Our task as a Council was not to determine whether a violation had occurred: our independent Integrity Commissioner, Principles Integrity, already concluded that Councillor Stolte contravened the Council Code of Good Governance (the “Code”) on two occasions.

The Integrity Commissioner determined there is “no justification” to release confidential information, and further the manner of the release was selective and “risks misleading the public” [43].

Accepting the consequences

Our task as a Council is to take our Code and our obligations under it seriously enough to have the courage to approve the recommended consequences for these breaches. Anything less would make a mockery of our own ethical conduct as defined by the Code and would politicize an issue that has already been depoliticized, by referring it to an independent investigation.

It would discourage anyone else from seeking an investigation and thereby reduce accountability, transparency and public trust.

I support Council’s vote to accept the Integrity Commissioner’s recommended consequences. Council showed restraint in imposing the minimum five days, versus the ‘up to 30 days’ he said was warranted by additional comments by the Councillor.

Accountability in between elections

The Code is one of the few tools Council, staff, the public or media have to hold members of Council to the highest ethical standards of conduct, especially between elections.

Its purpose is to ensure public trust and confidence in the City’s decision-making, ensure accurate information is shared with the community, and foster respect in the workplace, including respectful debate on controversial matters.

It took courage for Councillors Rory Nisan and Kelvin Galbraith to request an investigation. They knew the report and their identities would be public. They’ve received unwarranted criticism for doing exactly what the Code requires of all members of Council — to hold each other accountable to our obligations under the Code and the legislative provisions of the Ontario Municipal Act that all members of Council swear an oath of office to uphold.

The importance of confidentiality

Confidentiality is so important it’s one of only four items the Province requires to be spelled out in a Code. Confidentiality covers such issues as real estate transactions, labour negotiations, legal strategy and employee matters. Discussing these in public could lead to higher prices, losses in court or lawsuits. And who pays? The public.

We serve our community best by respecting confidentiality that protects our community’s interest.

The damaging impact of the breaches of confidentiality

What has been gained by the breach of confidentiality? Did it change a decision of Council or lead to a better decision on the two items where the breaches occurred?

No. It was simply a breach of obligation and duty to conduct oneself in a manner that inspires public trust.

What has been lost by the breach of confidentiality?

  • Any breach of the Code is a breach of public trust. The community loses;
  • The breach related to the purchase of Robert Bateman High School, as the Integrity Commissioner has noted, had incorrect information that risks misleading the public. In addition, while the dollar amount disclosed was incorrect, it could have seriously damaged negotiations as the seller could have interpreted that number as indicative of the City’s price point. The community loses; and
  • The breach related to the Committee of Adjustment matter, the information was released selectively, only to some constituents. The community loses. As Council members, we have an obligation to serve all our constituents equally, fairly and equitably – whether we agree with their position on a matter or not.
Breach of public trust

The breach of confidentiality has caused staff and Council to lose faith and trust that information brought forward in confidential session will remain so. This compromises our ability to have the robust discussions necessary to make the best decisions for our community. The community loses.

Rebuilding trust

This negative impact will last for some time until trust can be reestablished. However, there has been a total lack of remorse or commitment to respect the obligations to maintain confidentiality. A step in the direction of restoring trust would be to make a full and unequivocal apology for this breach, commit not to do it again, and instead use appropriate tools to bring information into the public realm.

Appropriate tools to bring confidential information into the public realm

There is no need to breach confidentiality to get confidential information on the public record, or to prompt a discussion on improvements to closed-door meeting protocols.

There are several appropriate tools available to all members of Council to waive privilege over confidential matters, and some actions have already been taken for improvement.

  • Any member of Council can bring a motion to waive privilege over certain confidential matters to release them to the public. That would have been the appropriate process to release information related to the Bateman purchase or the Committee of Adjustment matter, but that didn’t happen before the information was unilaterally disclosed. So, Council never had an opportunity together to discuss releasing the information. On several occasions, both in this term and in previous terms, Council members have brought motions to waive privilege, and Council has voted to release the maximum amount of information to the public as soon as possible. Examples include release of planning reports related to Ontario Land Tribunal matters.
  • Any member of Council can bring a motion to amend the Procedure Bylaw to provide additional information when reporting out to the public on closed session matters. That would have been an option related to the listing of the Committee of Adjustment matters. Again, that didn’t happen prior to releasing the confidential information. It’s something council can consider going forward.
  • Any member of Council can request an opinion or advice from the Integrity Commissioner to get a ruling on whether certain information can be released. A few councillors have sought such advice and shared the information.
  • Any member of council can request a Closed Meeting Investigation if there is concern that we are improperly in a closed session. That didn’t happen prior to the breaches.
  • Members of the public or media can also seek a Closed Meeting Investigation. That has not happened. That speaks for itself about the level of concern the community has about our closed session meetings.

None of these appropriate tools were used to release confidential information or prompt a discussion on report listings before the breach occurred. As such, Council was not given the chance to weigh in on any suggested improvements. That deprived Council and the public from the very opportunity to have these discussions in an open, public, proactive and positive way.

As noted by the Integrity Commissioner, no one member of Council can unilaterally determine what information should be publicly disclosed before Council has taken a stance on the issue. We are a team. We all have an obligation to comply with the confidentiality provisions of our Code, and if we wish to change them, we do so using the appropriate tools available.

I do hope because of this experience, all Council members are now more aware of, and feel more comfortable using the appropriate tools available to bring information into the public realm.

Duty to validate

Councillor Stolte has further made serious allegations and assumptions about her Council colleagues, administration and the use of our closed session meetings. These allegations are included in the Integrity Commissioner’s report as the councillor’s perceptions but have not been independently investigated or validated.

Further unsubstantiated claims have been made that this Council has unnecessarily increased going into closed session. There is no evidence presented to support that claim either.

What is true is that we’re an exceptionally busy “giddy-up-let’s-go Council.” The sheer quantity and length of meetings, in general, and the achievements overall this term have been significant. The total number of reports is more than 1,000 by the end of this term of Council. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished together as a team.

It’s not good enough to simply make an allegation. Simply believing something to be true, doesn’t make it so. Given our leadership positions in the community, some people will believe something to be true, just because a Council member said it, without looking for any verification. We have a responsibility for the impact of our words and statements, and a duty to make sure that what we say is accurate (that’s also in our Code).

Therefore, it’s incumbent upon anyone making a claim to move beyond perception and belief and determine if the claim has merit. Regarding concerns related to closed session meetings, they can be assessed via an independent Closed Meeting Investigation that the Councillor never requested.

Closed meeting investigation request; public report May 4

However, I have asked for a Closed Meeting Investigation on the meetings that led to the two breaches of confidentiality. I know we all will welcome the results of that investigation as it will give us independent findings on whether we were properly in closed.

We will get our answer and it will be public, at the May 4 Corporate Services, Strategy, Risk and Accountability (CSSRA) Committee, and in our agenda package this Friday (April 22).

Conversations with the Councillor, City Manager & I, and actions arising

In recent months, both together and individually, the City Manager and I had numerous discussions with the Councillor to share our concerns about her breaches of confidentiality, hear her concerns and find solutions together.

Though we both believed a breach of the Code had occurred, and the Integrity Commissioner’s investigation found that it did, neither one of us chose to file a formal complaint but discussed these matters with her directly. I was hoping we could make progress through these conversations, and in fact we were making progress, as detailed below.

I had no prior knowledge that a complaint was filed, nor did I participate in it in any way. I read the report when it was publicly released in our agenda last Friday (April 15). However, I understand the frustration that led Councillors Nisan and Galbraith to file a formal complaint as breaches continued, to make them stop.

Review of closed meeting practices; public report in June

Those conversations, as well as conversations with other members of Council who all share a commitment to continuous improvement and public transparency, contributed in part to the City Manager’s report in March (CM-8-22) to review our Code. There was also a supplementary motion from Councillor Stolte to include in the City Manager’s report a review and recommendations on our closed door meeting policies, and a companion motion from Councillors Nisan and Sharman to expedite the review.

When given the chance, via an appropriate public motion, Council supported all three. That speaks to the commitment that every single member of this Council has to continuous improvement, maximum accountability and transparency in service to the public.

The Integrity Commissioner’s recommendations for changes regarding the listing of closed session meetings will be forwarded to those doing the complete review of our meetings so we have a comprehensive set of recommendations. We will get that information via a public report in June.

Where we go from here

I stand by all the decisions we have made in closed session and look forward to when the details of the two matters that led to the breach of confidentiality can be made public.  That time will come in a matter of months for both. I welcome the opportunity to provide ‘My Take’ and explain my vote to the community.

We can come together and move forward as a Council team by having approved the recommended consequences for this breach, following our Code, holding each other to account when we don’t, and using the appropriate, public tools, to raise matters for discussion so we can all participate in the conversation and vote, democratically, in public, as a team.

We can further move forward by implementing any recommended findings and improvements from the Closed Meeting Investigator when that review comes back, as part of our ongoing efforts toward continuous improvement and public transparency. All of council is committed to that.

I will conclude with Section 2 of the Code: “We acknowledge that working collaboratively will provide better governance decisions.”

Let’s do that. The appropriate tools are there for everyone to use.

 

— Burlington Mayor Marianne Meed Ward

– 30 –

Background Materials:
  1. CL-16-22 Report from the Integrity Commissioner – Code of Conduct Complaint.pdf
  2. CL-16-22 Appendix A – Code of Good Governance.pdf
  3. CL-16-22 Appendix B – Recommendation Report Burlington Stolte.pdf
  4. Staff direction regarding closed meeting protocol (CSSRA-02-22) (SD-04-22)
  5. Regular Meeting of Council Minutes February 15, Item 12.2 G
  6. City of Burlington Recommended Governance Framework changes/Integrity Commissioner RFP (CM-8-22)
  7. Regular Meeting of Council Minutes February 22, Item 12.4 K
  8. Link to minutes/video of April 19 Council meeting
Accountability Resources:

Receive new post notifications by email

2 thoughts on “Burlington Council Approves Penalties Recommended by Integrity Commissioner for Councillor’s Confidentiality Breaches”

  1. Thank you Mayor. I appreciate the transparency and council’s commitment to disclosure and continuous improvement.

  2. Thank you for sharing this information.
    It would appear to me that much of this has to do with the future of the Bateman site. I ask that City Council consider the publication of a high-level project plan which highlights the sequence of major events to be considered including those where public opinion will be sought. The Bateman surrounding residential neighbourhoods fought hard for the school that they were unable to save and thus they are concerned as to any intensification on what was the Bateman Secondary School site.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Here are guidelines before you comment, and our expectations before we will post:

  • Be civil. Would you speak this way to a good friend? If not, rewrite.
  • Focus on the issues. Build your argument and make your case in support of your opinion from facts, research or other sources. That way we can all learn. “I disagree with so-and-so because…” is fine; “So-and-so is naïve/stupid  for thinking the way he/she does and here’s why…” is not acceptable.
  • Don’t make personal attacks. Don’t assume motives of those you disagree with, make unfounded allegations, spread rumours, or engage in any other behaviours that would discourage you from participating if someone said this to, or about, you. The Golden Rule applies: Do unto others as you would have done to you. We will edit or not post comments with this type of content.
  • Say it once: When comments from the same individual or individuals become repetitive, going over ground already stated, we reserve the right to close commenting.
  • Use your full, and real, name. If wish to make a comment in public, we expect you will publicly stand behind it with your name. If you don’t want to publicly reveal your name, that’s fine; you are always welcome to share your thoughts with me privately via my email below. I welcome and consider all feedback in making decisions for the community.
  • Have fun, consider and learn. Share your views and read those of others. May we all benefit from a healthy exchange of ideas, and learn a little more about the people in our community, what you think, and what’s important to each of you. You may end up changing your mind about an issue; even if you don’t, we hope everyone will gain a greater understanding of why people have different perspectives.
Administrator

Administrator

A Better Burlington began in 2006 after my neighbours said they felt left out of city decisions, learning about them only after they’d been made. As journalist for 22 years, I thought “I can do something about that” and a website and newsletter were born. They’ve taken various forms and names over the years, but the intent remains: To let you know what’s happening at City Hall before decisions are made, so you can influence outcomes for A Better Burlington. The best decisions are made when elected representatives tap the wisdom of our community members, and welcome many different perspectives.This site allows residents to comment and debate with each other; our Commenting Guidelines established in 2016 aim to keep debate respectful. Got an idea or comment you want to share privately? Please, get in touch:

Newsletter Sign Up

Phone: 905-335-7607
Email:  mayor@burlington.ca

Media Specialist: John Bkila
john.bkila@burlington.ca
905-335-7600