New rules to oust councilors after misconduct edge closer to approval

The provincial government is about to change its laws so that a councilor who has behaved dishonorably can lose his seat.

Orléans MP Stephen Blais’ private member’s bill passed second reading at Queen’s Park on Wednesday evening – an unusual occurrence for a non-government bill that seeks to change provincial law – and is now headed to the Standing Committee on Social Policy for further study and possible modifications.

“The harassment and abuse of women is a scourge,” Blais said in his opening statement to the Legislative Assembly. “And tragically, as we have witnessed over the past two years, the corridors of power in cities across this province are not immune to this scourge.”

Blais, who was an Ottawa city councilor before his election to provincial parliament in 2020, said he was motivated to bring his bill forward after the CBC and two damning reports from the Integrity Commissioner exposed the council. Rick Chiarelli harassed former staff members and job applicants for years, and abused his power.

MPP Stephen Blais, seen here in a photo from 2019, sat on the same city council as Rick Chiarelli. He said in the provincial law on Wednesday that he often wonders how he was unaware of his former colleague’s harassing behavior. (Jean Delisle/Radio-Canada)

There have been other stories of shocking misconduct by councilors in other Ontario cities, including Brampton, Barrie and Mississauga, Blais said.

The MPP for the East read aloud from letters written by three women who worked for Chiarelli who called for changes to the Ontario Municipal Act.

Stephanie Dobbs, one of the official plaintiffs against Chiarelli, wrote that the College Ward Councilor “used manipulative tactics to undermine my sense of identity and safety within the office, resulting in a deterioration of my mental health, physical illnesses and suicidal thoughts”.

Victoria Laaber wrote that coming to terms with the years she spent working for Chiarelli “came with a wave of shame – shame at realizing what was happening in the moment, shame at not being able to protect myself, shame at knowing that he continued his behavior long after I was gone, creating more victims afterwards.”

WATCH | ‘It’s infuriating’: Advisor to resume paycheck collection after harassment findings

‘It’s infuriating’: Advisor to resume paycheck collection after harassment findings

Former staffers Nancy O’Brien, Victoria Laaber and Stephanie Dobbs say it’s disappointing to see Coun. Rick Chiarelli is still in his seat despite two reports from the Integrity Commissioner which revealed he harassed several staff members and job applicants. 3:02

Half a dozen MPs spoke during the debate, all in favor of the bill.

NDP MP for Ottawa Center Joel Harden supported the bill, saying, “I can’t wait for this to become law. Several of his New Democrat colleagues also spoke in favor of the bill, as did the Ottawa-area Liberals.

Many, including Blais, have argued that ordinary Ontarians are likely to lose their jobs if they behave like certain councilors, but there’s no way to impeach an elected official who behaves the same or worse.

“Councillor Rick Chiarelli should have lost his job a long time ago,” said Ottawa-Vanier MPP Lucille Couillard. “This bill is badly needed common sense reform.”

Conservative government supports change

Councilors can lose their seat for violating election expenses rules and certain conflict of interest rules. But the most severe penalty for an adviser who behaves egregiously is a suspension of salary. Chiarelli lost his salary for about 15 months, but has been back on the City payroll since November.

Blais’ Bill 10, called the “Stop Harassment and Abuse by Local Leaders Act,” would allow a councilor who violated the code of conduct by not complying with policies on violence or harassment at work to be removed from office. The bill proposes that a final decision be made by a judge of the Superior Court.

The Progressive Conservative government has expressed support for changing the law. Last March, the government quietly announced that it would launch consultations “to strengthen the accountability of board members” — consultations that took place last summer.

In December, the government was due to table a bill to change the councilor conduct laws, but at the last minute the government changed its mind.

In Wednesday night’s debate, the Conservatives were represented by Stormont-Glengarry-South Dundas MLA Jim McDonell, who is the Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing.

He did not explicitly support Blais’ bill, but said his party supports change.

“I think stronger consequences should be put in place to deter misconduct and breaches of that trust,” McDonell said. “We have been clear, our government will not tolerate any harassment or discrimination in the workplace.”

There are only about eight weeks left before the dissolution of the Legislative Assembly for the provincial elections. It is unclear whether Blais’ bill can pass within that timeframe.

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