West Nipissing Council overstepped their authority when handing down two punishments to one of their own for violating their Code of Conduct, at what truly was a special council meeting on June 22.
The town’s Integrity Commissioner, Patrice Cormier, found Coun. Chris Fisher was in contravention of the Code of Conduct for two separate events. The first involved a Nov. 1, 2020, email in which he wrote to Coun. Denis Sénécal “What is it like being a lying piece of shit? Report me, please.”
After investigating the incident following a complaint, Cormier recommended “that a letter of apology be prepared by Coun. Fisher and that it be sent to all members of council.” At the suggestion of Coun. Sénécal, council opted to amend this recommendation by insisting the apology be published in the newspaper.
“There’s not too much I can say besides I’m very disappointed and I hope that we as a council can decide what is appropriate for a comment like this; I think it’s going to be setting a precedent for others,” said Sénécal. “It’s unfortunate that a councillor would address another councillor with so little respect. Even if we don’t like each other, we all keep our tongues sometimes. It’s a matter of having a little class.”
Sénécal suggested that Fisher should buy an ad in this very paper in order to run his apology letter. At that point, Fisher declared a pecuniary interest – which means an interest relating to one’s finances – and recused himself from the discussion.
Along with Coun. Sénécal, Mayor Joanne Savage, Coun. Lise Sénécal and Coun. Yvon Duhaime agreed with the recommendation, while Coun. Dan Roveda, Leo Malette and Rolly Larabie voted against. The motion was carried given that Fisher abstained from voting.
However, shortly after, CAO Jay Barbeau informed council that they don’t have the authority to impose financial penalties through the IC process beyond loss of pay. Therefore, the resolution could be ignored, which is what Fisher chose to do by addressing a letter to his fellow councillors, in lieu of a newspaper ad, on June 24.
“As many of you may recall, it was previously asked that a councillor offer an apology to an employee. Some of you took the stance that someone cannot be forced to apologize,” he wrote, referencing a closed session meeting. “Tuesday, for a lesser offence, you wanted me take out an advertisement in the newspaper tendering an apology. You have no authority to do so, and you had already taken a stance against it. Some of you are operating with different sets of rules for different individuals – this is called a double standard.”
Fisher’s second violation of the Code of Conduct was for December 2020 posts in the Facebook group called ‘On s’parle Verner Let’s talk’. In response to a poll on whether a by-election should be held to fill the current vacancy on council, he wrote “There are levels of stupid,” presumably referencing another poster. The IC recommended Coun. Fisher post a public apology in the Facebook group.
With no pecuniary interest to declare, Fisher rejoined discussions and stated his intention to vote.
“This one I disagree with, and I didn’t answer (the IC’s request) because I’m trying to save money for the taxpayer,” he said. “As for an apology, I blocked this person on social media anyway and as for a conflict, I don’t see this as one so I’m going to vote on it, unless you want me to pull out another quarter-page ad.”
However, Mayor Savage said it was her understanding after discussions with the IC that “the party that has been proven guilty is excluded from the vote.” With the Mayor ignoring Fisher’s vote, the resolution to have him post a public apology was passed, four-three. But subsequent correspondence from the CAO showed that that resolution was also defeated on the grounds that Fisher intended to vote. It was also noted that an apology isn’t actually an enforceable remedy under the Municipal Act or any other relevant legislation, so even that recommendation could be ignored.
The whole debacle came one week after the IC presented his annual report to council, a report that showed the municipality spent $24,030.06 on his services, nearly double the amount of the previous year. During his final remarks, Cormier urged council to put aside their differences and work toward better serving the people of West Nipissing.