Investigator clears council from conduct complaint

By Merna Emara
Staff Writer

The Town of Fort Frances council has been cleared of any potential violation of the Municipal Act, following a complaint submitted about an in-camera session.

The complaint was submitted by local barrister and solicitor Peter Howie to the town’s closed meeting investigator, Paul Heayn. In his complaint, Howie alleged that council met illegally behind closed doors during the Jan. 10, 2022 council meeting, to discuss an item of business he felt did not warrant an in-camera discussion.

The agenda item was listed as discussing correspondence received from the general public, raising personal matters about an identifiable individual.

As members of the public would later learn, the correspondence was also from Howie, alerting council that Mayor June Caul had shared a confidential draft legal opinion with local realtor David Kircher. The legal opinion, drafted by Gowling WLG, advised the town on matters of wood allocation, following the closure of the Fort Frances mill.

As a result of that in-camera session, council voted to request a public apology from Caul for the breach. The mayor had recused herself from the discussion and vote, and issued a prepared public apology that night.

In his complaint to Heayn, Howie stated that council should have discussed the item in an open session because the conduct of elected officials does not grant closed meeting protection. Howie also said there was no information at risk of public disclosure because all the documents appended to the agenda were obtained by him through the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. He had obtained the leak by requesting all e-mails from Caul to Kircher, through the Act.

“It seems obvious to me that this item was taken into closed session so that members of council could attempt to hide the mayor’s gross misconduct and likely violation of the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act for failing to disclose her interest,” Howie wrote in the complaint.

Through the course of his investigation, Heayn interviewed Gabrielle Lecuyer, the municipal clerk. He said Lecuyer cooperated fully. Lecuyer told the investigator that the decision to go in-camera was reached after the town sought legal opinion on the matter.

“Staff knew the probability of receiving a complaint in subsequent days would be a strong possibility,” Heayn explained in his report to council. He said staff took into consideration the fact that Caul had not pled guilty to sharing the document prior to the in-camera meeting, and therefore, were protecting the town from potential litigation.

The legal opinion sought by Lecuyer reminded staff that placing correspondence from the public and publishing it on the town council’s agenda could be enabling defamation and libel of an individual who could then bring legal action against the municipality.

The legal opinion also noted that Howie’s letter to council raised serious allegations of a highly personal nature, so the agenda item easily qualified as an in-camera item.

Heayn also said the recipient of the mayor’s leak had not been identified by the town prior to the meeting. He explained that because council would disclose this person’s identity, the in-camera session was warranted.

“I feel that revealing the person’s name would expose the town to possible legal issues,” Heayn said. “For this reason I feel the Town of Fort Frances did not contravene the Municipal Act, 2001, when it met in closed session on Jan. 10, 2022.”

Kircher’s identity was revealed by Howie over social media, prior to the meeting.

Coun. Douglas Judson was the only one who raised serious concerns about Heayn’s report. Judson said he believes the report was riddled with factual errors and makes statements of facts that are untrue.

“If I’m being completely honest, I actually think this is the lowest quality report we’ve ever received at this council in the term I’ve been here,” Judson said. “I want to expand on my comments because council has continued to muzzle me this evening whenever I have substantive comments to observe.”

Caul recused herself from the discussion of the item, and left the room during the debate and vote. Five councillors voted in favour of receiving the report and making it public. Judson voted against this resolution.