The Independent ©
Petrolia’s Chief Administrative Officer owns a building the town is now renting for storage – an interest he didn’t reveal to councillors when they asked point-blank who owned the building during an open public council meeting.
In September, town public works crews could be seen cleaning out 395 Fletcher St. a building which formerly housed World Data Service Ltd.
Dumpsters of garbage were taken away and old props from Victoria Playhouse could be seen.
The building was bought by Petrolia developer Horst Richter in July, according to Land Registry documents.
By the end of September, there were visible signs of renovations at the building including new garage doors and windows. Plywood has also been placed on windows which were not replaced.
Documents from the Land Registry office show the same Ontario numbered company which owns 4168 Robert St. – the town’s youth and seniors centre – bought the building Sept. 29.
Petrolia’s CAO, Manny Baron, is the sole owner of the numbered company according to documents obtained by The Independent from the Ministry of Government Services.
On Oct. 10, councillors started asking questions about the new storage building.
Councillor Ross O’Hara raised the issue of the cost of renting storage space in the long term.
While the reporter for The Independent had left the council chambers during the discussion, three people confirmed that during that discussion, Councillor Grant Purdy directly asked who owned 395 Fletcher St.
Purdy says Dave Menzies, director of facilities and community services, told council he didn’t know who owned the building but he “does his hand shakes” on the rent deal with Richter.
“Then Manny (Baron) responded to me, ‘I can answer that – it’s Horst Richter,’” Purdy told The Independent. By then, Baron’s numbered company had owned the building, which cost $290,000, for 12 days.
Questions had been raised about Baron’s involvement by two councillors last week, after it was learned Baron’s company bought 4168 Robert St. just 10 days before council approved the concept of the youth and seniors drop in centre in the building.
Last week, the CAO told The Independent the town was not paying rent on the building so he didn’t feel he had to disclose his interest in the building.Councillor O’Hara was concerned about the issue, but didn’t comment at the time, saying he needed to talk to the CAO.
O’Hara says Baron repeated to him in a private meeting that the town wasn’t paying rent. “He said he rented two apartments to people and because the utilities were not included, the town was paying the utilities in lieu of rent,” says O’Hara.
In the budget for the youth/seniors centre, utilities were expected to be about $1,800 for the year.
Purdy, who was disturbed by the fact Baron had not disclosed his interest in the youth/seniors centre, is angry after learning the CAO owns another building which the town is renting.
“It is a conflict of interest,” he tells The Independent. “The optics are horrible.
“This new revelation is strictly a private enterprise with cash revenue coming from the town.”
Purdy adds the timing of the sale of the two buildings suggests there was “foreknowledge” of the plans for both buildings. “The timing was just impeccable; way beyond coincidence.
“This is something I am not going to let slide if there is any wrong doing.”
Ontario’s Conflict of Interest Act prohibits elected officials from gaining financially from inside information about municipal activity. The forward to the Conflict of Interest Act says the province recognizes “The importance of integrity, independence and accountability in local government decision-making, the importance of certainty in reconciling the public duties and pecuniary (monetary) interests of members” and that council members are “expected to perform their duties of office with integrity and impartiality in a manner which bears the closest scrutiny.”
But administrators are not bound by those rules. Petrolia’s CAO is also the clerk of council and most clerks are members of the Association of Municipal Managers Clerks, Treasurers of Ontario. It has its own Code of Ethics and Values.
That code calls for members to “maintain professionalism, integrity and trust.” Craig Wellington, director of programs and services for AMCTO says while there are no monetary penalties for violations of the code, clerks could lose their membership if they are in conflict with the code. That may make it difficult to obtain work for other municipal governments.
A complaint of a violation of the AMCTO Code of Ethics can only be filed by another member of the association.
So far, there doesn’t seem to be an investigation of any kind into the revelations Baron appears to be profiting from his position with the municipality.
Mayor John McCharles said the first he became aware the CAO owned 395 Fletcher St. was Tuesday morning, when he was informed by The Independent.
When asked if McCharles was concerned the top municipal administrator mislead council in an open session about the ownership of the building, McCharles responded; “ I can’t comment on that, it is basically a personnel matter, so I can’t comment on it.
“It is a personnel issue and it will be handled as a personnel issue.”
The mayor also wasn’t clear if there would be council discussions about how the personnel issue would be handled.
“I’m not sure of that, with council, we’re kind of on our off week here…You have to get council together,” he says adding a special meeting could be called.
McCharles added at least one councillor is out-of-town and wouldn’t be available immediately.
“I have a number of appointments and I’m sure other councillors have appointments as well, I know… to get the council together it is not as easy as saying ‘Okay, we’re going to have a council meeting. Everybody has other duties.”
Purdy simply wants to get to the bottom of the issue. “I may consider asking for a provincial auditor to look at the town books,” he tells The Independent.
“We’re told you are supposed to have trust in the employees,” he says adding right now, he doesn’t.
“I feel there is a lack of transparency now – a lack of willingness to provide that information.
“When I took the oath to be on council, I promised to be a good steward of the town’s finances. If that’s uncomfortable and it turns up some uncomfortable things, I’m fine with that. It is my obligation.”
The Independent contacted each councillor, either by phone and by email to inform them of the latest finding and seeking comment. Only O’Hara, Purdy and McCharles made themselves available for an interview.
The Independent also tried to contact the CAO. The receptionist at town hall told us all comments on any subject were now to go to the mayor citing the town’s media policy as the reason.
The Independent also reached out by email to the CAO asking why he told councillors Richter owned the building and who paid for the renovations. At press time, Baron had not responded.
The town will pay $2,500 a month for the storage space owned by Baron. A 25 year mortgage for $290,000, according to online apps, would require a $1,500 monthly payment.