Councillors suggest the Code of Conduct complaint was politically motivated as election approaches
Petrolia’s Integrity Commissioner says Mayor Brad Loosley “committed no more than an inadvertent breach” of the town’s Code of Conduct when he revealed to The Independent the fire chief was named in an investigation by John Fleming after OPP were called by town staff to investigate Councillor Marty Souch.
Daria Peregoudova of Aird & Berlis LLP, the law firm handling Petrolia’s Code of Conduct complaints, Daria Peregoudova of Aird & Berlis LLP, the law firm handling Petrolia’s Code of Conduct complaints, found the remarks attributed to the mayor “were not disclosed anywhere in those public materials or elsewhere to the best of our knowledge” but relied on the mayor’s narrative that The Independent had asked “trick questions” to reveal the information and comments from town staff which characterized the reporting of The Independent as “tabloid” journalism.
The report, presented to council by Peregoudova Monday, says a complaint was filed Jan. 6. It alleged the mayor had broken privacy rules for in camera meetings in an interview with The Independent in the Dec. 17th edition of the paper.
In the newspaper report, the mayor was asked why the fire chief’s job description had changed in a bylaw which had been passed at a previous council meeting. The paper reported the following:
“Loosley tells The Independent the change comes in the wake of the investigation by John Fleming into the incident which saw police tail Souch after after a staff member went to police concerned a councillor was watching (staff at work.”
(Souch was never charged. Fleming reported publicly he was “overzealous” in his desire to see taxpayers dollars well spent.)
The Independent’s report continued “Loosley says the bylaw clarifies Arns position. “There’s a difference on his responsibilities now basically to be related to fire and crossing guards and parking tickets, that type of thing. And that’s where he will stop. So it won’t be all the other things that – what he was involved with – you know, that part of the idea of somebody following somebody and him getting involved with that,” he says.
“The Independent asked the mayor if the fire chief ‘felt empowered’ to take action in the incident because his directorship included protective services. “That’s my understanding, yes,’ says Loosley.”
The mayor, Peregoudova writes, felt he had been “pressured – ‘over and over'” in his words, to provide further information about Fleming’s report. And “the Mayor stated that the Reporter did so through the use of “trick questions”
instead of “regular questions”.
“The Mayor was unequivocal that it was his sincere belief that he did not disclose or release any confidential information, and that his words were twisted in such a way as to make it seem as such,” wrote Peregoudova. “The Mayor pointed to his being distraught the next day upon reading the
Article, and his comments to staff and the Fire Chief in support of his statements. These sentiments, including a belief that the Mayor had not divulged any confidential information, was shared by staff members that we spoke to during the course of the investigation.”
The mayor, the report says, did not contact The Independent for a correction or retraction saying “it would do more harm than good.”
Staff members were the only people at town hall, other than Loosley, interviewed about the alleged breach of confidentiality.
Peregoudova said she was “made aware of a long-standing history concerning the leaking of confidential, in camera information to The Independent.” Later in the report, she states “Like others, the Mayor also brought to our attention the one councillor with a known close relationship to The Independent who had admitted to disclosing information from an in camera session, necessitating a disciplinary response from the Mayor.”
Peregoudova also interviewed The Independent’s Heather Wright. When the investigator asked for the recorded conversation – which Wright told them existed – the journalist refused “citing journalistic standards and rules.” Wright said a court order would be needed. The investigator felt that would delay the process and be too costly.
Peregoudova added further in the document “We were unable to find any official journalistic rules or standards that would disallow the Reporter to confidentially disclose the recording with us for the purposes of our investigation.”
The report also stated every person the writer encountered of the staff at town hall “expressed concern about the quality and accuracy of the reporting from The Independent, and the Reporter in particular. Specifically, it was indicated that articles often mis-paraphrased, exaggerated or stated incorrect facts and details, and targeted certain individuals.” And that The Independent painted the town’s staff in a “negative and inaccurate light” and “at worst the reporting was compared to a tabloid.”
Peregoudova then concluded if the mayor did release confidential information it was “inadvertent” and “such a transgression warrants no formal reprimand or monetary penalty.”
Councillors agreed with the findings unanimously passing the recommendation of the Integrity Commissioner’s representative that there be no formal reprimand nor monetary penalty.
Watch the report to council, and council’s reaction, here :
Councillor Wade Deighton suggested the Code of Conduct complaint should have been thrown out. “We shouldn’t even deal with is this, even something that you would go forward with even putting in a report…we shouldn’t act on it,” he said.
Councillor Grant Purdy – who held up enlarged images of former Mayor John McCharles’ Twitter account saying the Integrity Commissioner was once again in Petrolia – said it appeared the complaint was politically motivated to harm the current mayor’s re-election chances.
Councillor Souch agreed, asking if the Integrity Commissioner would release the name of the person who filed the complaint. That is only done in “very specific circumstances” Peregoudova said.
Councillor Joel Field suggested if The Independent had offered up the recording of the interview, the complaint would not have been taken seriously. “If the tape had come up with the very beginning, and it was very clear, I’m just wondering if the rest of the interview – I mean investigation – would continue?” Peregoudova said the complaint did warrant investigation.
While council deliberated the mayor’s fate, The Independent’s publisher stood at the back of the council chamber with a hand raised. Councillors pointed out to Purdy – who was acting as the chair – the presence of Wright, however the town’s CAO said only town councillors would be able to comment prior to council’s vote.
When council allowed members of the public to speak, Wright questioned the mayor’s recollection of the interview leading to the complaint.
“The mayor and I had a conversation that was 16 minute and 45 seconds long on Dec. 14. We talked about several subjects … and – for about two minutes and 55 seconds – the mayor and I talked about this bylaw – I did not once raise the issue of the full scope of the Fleming report in that conversation. Not once.”
Wright also questioned Loosley’s statement there were “trick questions” reading from the transcript some of the questions asked; “So what, what will be the benefit of him (the fire chief) being a director of public services, as opposed to the director of protective services, I don’t understand that,” and “So, I’m sorry, I just want make sure I understand this. So, then the bylaw enforcement part of his (fire chief’s) job now has been removed?” and “And so was the thought process there, Brad, that perhaps with the way his job description was worded, he felt empowered to take action in this situation?”
Hear the Interview here
On not handing over the recording to the investigator, Wright explained “It is common and best practice in journalism to refuse requests for investigative work product to police and judicial and quasi judicial bodies. It is kind of like attorney-client privilege in the legal realm or in camera items in the world of government.”
She said if reporters willingly turn over notes to authorities, whistleblowers and confidential sources will have no assurances they will be protected by journalists.
Wright pointed out the investigator could have asked how long the interview lasted and what questions were asked, or if the contents of the Fleming report came up in the conversation, but she did not.
“The failure of the investigator to ask those questions puts the media on trial instead of answering this very simple question about the mayor’s conduct: When I said to the mayor on Dec 14 ‘I noticed in the one of the bylaws that Jay Arns – his title has changed to director of public services. What’s that about?’ – why didn’t he simply say, I can’t comment on that since it is a personnel issue?”
Wright says she normally doesn’t say anything when community leaders malign the local newspaper but could not stand by as an investigator found the mayor’s assertion that his words were manipulated was the most probable scenario, publicly damaging the reputation of the newspaper and her integrity as a journalist on the public record.
“Do I report difficult stories that politicians would rather I not – absolutely. Do I ask tough questions – absolutely. That’s the job. Do I place the town in a negative light? Sometimes yes. That’s called accountability and that’s what journalism is about and what readers expect,” said Wright.
“I could no longer sit in the council chambers and let the “blame the media” narrative continue…If a public report came out with Town of Petrolia maligning another local business, my guess is the town would find legal documents on its desk accusing officials of slander,” she said.
“I make mistakes. I am willing to admit my mistakes. When the town calls pointing out an error – there is a correction.
“I did not make a mistake here.”
Council had no response to the presentation.
Read Wright’s presentation to Petrolia Council June 13 here;