West Nipissing’s new Integrity Commissioner, lawyer Paul Cassan, made his first report to municipal council at the meeting held July 11, sharing his findings concerning a complaint made against Councillor Fern Pellerin. Cassan is a legal partner at Wishart Law Firm in Sault Ste Marie; he took up his duties following the election of the new council in 2022. “This is the first complaint that I received as your Integrity Commissioner,” he told council, indicating that the complaint was received May 2, 2023. “The complaint, to be precise, is that Councillor Pellerin signed a petition after council had decided on who was going to be on what board. The complaint was made by a ratepayer. The ratepayer has asked to remain anonymous, and I don’t see a good reason to not grant that request. I think it is important for council to know that it is not a member of council, and it is not a member of staff who made the complaint.”
The complaint was that Coun. Pellerin signed a petition following a resolution by council to shuffle the board compositions, effectively removing Coun. Anne Tessier from her seat as board chair of Au Château Home for the Aged. The petition Pellerin signed ran counter to the council decision, which Pellerin had already opposed in chambers. Cassan’s written report is not yet public as it must meet council approval, however he provided a verbal synopsis. The resolution to shuffle council membership on various boards was passed on April 4, 2023. Cassan did not comment on the merits of the resolution but confirmed that proper procedure was followed. “I looked at the agenda to see that it was properly on the agenda. I looked at the notice to see that it was a proper public meeting, and so I was confident in finding that the passing of Resolution 2023/110 was done properly, and the reason that’s important is that council operates what we call the third level of government, the municipal government, and the decisions of council become law. That’s important for council to understand and appreciate as well as the ratepayers of West Nipissing. When council made the decision with respect to the assignment of councillors on the various boards, that becomes the law. I know that Councillor Pellerin and Councillor Tessier voted against the resolution,” he said, but the resolution passed 7 to 2 and became law.
Cassan said that the problem with the petition that Coun. Pellerin signed was that “The language of the petition is disrespectful of council’s decision. It’s disrespectful of the councillors who sit on the Au Château board … including Councillor Pellerin himself… The petition called upon municipal council to essentially change the position that they arrived at… asks for a reversal of council’s decision.” Cassan told council that he communicated the matter to Coun. Pellerin on May 10th, at the same time providing him a copy of the municipal Code of Conduct, and arranged to have an interview. “Councillor Pellerin is the only party that I interviewed with respect to this matter. I did speak to staff a little bit to obtain the procedure information that I was looking for and councillor Pellerin finally met with me on May the 26th of 2023.” Cassan prefaced his findings by first noting that the whole matter was early in Coun. Pellerin’s first term in office, and “Coun. Pellerin was very cooperative with me… He indicated to me that he signed the petition at a local business. It was important for me to learn that Councillor Tessier did not ask Councillor Pellerin to sign the petition and Counselor Pellerin does not believe that she was involved in the petition at all. He admits that he signed the petition. He admits that he knows that the reassignment of councillors to the boards was a council decision, but he indicated to me that he voted against it.”
Cassan took the opportunity to tell councillors that if they are in doubt about a decision in relation to the Code of Conduct, they could call upon him for advice. “We had essentially a bit of an education discussion at the end of our interview and we talked about the fact that councillors are definitely supposed to debate issues in open council. Their job is to convince other members of council to vote alongside their opinion, and that’s where the debate … is supposed to happen. But the Code of Conduct then requires, once a council decision has been made, that all members of council have an obligation to support that decision. And it doesn’t matter whether you agreed with it, or you didn’t agree with it. As a member of council, once that decision is made, you have an obligation to support and put forward that position.” Cassan continued that councillors are required to be familiar with the Code of Conduct, and to comply with procedural bylaw, that members respect the decision-making process, and this applies to both council and the various municipal boards.