BERWICK — In a second appearance at a troubled North Stormont Council meeting this year, commissioner Tony Fleming — a contracted lawyer from the Kingston area — has weighed in on the speech used by a councillor.
In this instance, Fleming cleared Steve Densham June 23 of wrongdoing for his choice of words — including “venom” — when he commented earlier this year about Councillor Roxane Villeneuve, who was herself the subject of an investigation by the integrity commissioner.
Fleming on Jan. 14 presented a report that found Villeneuve’s words and behaviour had breached the township’s code of conduct in several ways after an investigation that looked at — among other things — her use of profanity and the term “Mickey Mouse operation” as she exited a closed council session last summer.
A clearly frustrated Densham expressed his feelings on the matter in a Jan. 28 statement, explaining why he (and colleagues Councillor Randy Douglas and Deputy Mayor Frank Landry) had forwarded the nine-point complaint about her to the integrity commissioner in the first place. That statement, as it turned out, triggered an anonymous complaint comprising five allegations, all of which Fleming dismissed during council’s last meeting, its first virtual video confab on Zoom.
Densham’s remarks did not constitute verbal abuse under the code of conduct, according Fleming, tackling the first allegation. “My finding was that there was no discrimination or elements of intimidation, harassment, etc., contained in that statement,” he reported.
Fleming also dismissed a second allegation that Densham’s statement was discriminatory under the human rights code (and therefore breached the code of conduct as well) by using “venom” and “record of offences.” The first word referred to Villeneuve’s gender, according to the claim.
“There was no basis that I could find that was a reference to gender or was intended to be discriminatory on the basis of gender,” declared Fleming, who also found no evidence that Densham had uttered the phrase ‘record of offences,’ another category of non-discrimination under the human rights code. However, even if Densham had used the latter term, it’s a reference to Criminal Code convictions and “not applicable” in this situation, he said.
A third aspect of the complaint pertained to council’s “legislated responsibilities” under a section the Municipal Act, but Fleming said it didn’t apply to individual councillors. “So that aspect was also dismissed.”
The complaint’s fourth element alleged a conflict of interest on Densham’s part, “essentially arguing that the councillor was making statements that were self-serving,” observed Fleming. “The code [of conduct] does not prevent members of council from expressing personal opinions,” the integrity commissioner explained, adding that conflict of interest rules are only intended to prohibit council members “from making decisions where there is outside influence, external influence or some sort of personal or pecuniary interest. In this respect, there was no conflict of interest.”
The fifth allegation suggested Densham had failed to respect the decision of council, “and I found that this was not the case,” said Fleming. The councillor was actually “making a statement in support of the decision council had made in its previous meeting. He was responding to the statement made by Councillor Villeneuve … the bottom line being, Councillor Densham was not being disrespectful of council’s decision. It was quite the opposite.”
Reflecting on the last portion of his report, Fleming remarked that “this kind of complaint is not conducive to trying to get council back to a place where you can get along, make decisions and move matters forward in the best interests of the community.”
But if Fleming’s parting advice might have left the impression Villeneuve was connected to the complaint against Densham, the councillor herself denies this. “I do not know who made the complaint, and that is not the point,” Villeneuve told NVN.
The councillor said she was not consulted by the integrity commissioner as he looked into the latest complaint, even though Densham’s words were about her. “You would think that as part of any inquiry, I would be consulted or asked how those comments from Densham … made me feel. Because if the inquiry to me was ever done, I certainly would have responded that I definitely felt harassed, the comments by Densham were uncalled for, and did not have any business on the agenda of that meeting,” she said.
Fleming confirmed for NVN that he didn’t contact Villeneuve for her thoughts on Densham’s statement. “I looked obviously at that issue,” he said. “But really, it was about the statement itself. Because I have to look objectively at the statement. It’s not a subjective analysis … I need to look at an objective assessment of what was said, the context in which it was said … to determine does that statement trigger a breach of the code.”
Fleming told NVN his June 23 report was a “report of a preliminary review” and not a “full investigation report” of the sort delivered against Villeneuve earlier in the year — although both are final reports containing his findings. “In this case, there were very few matters that needed a full investigation, so I call it a preliminary review … for most of them it was sufficient to do the analysis and come to a conclusion,” he explained, adding that only one allegation on the Densham matter required further investigation before delivery of the report.
Provincial legislation leaves it up to his discretion, as integrity commissioner, to decide if the names of complainants should be released or left confidential, he said, when asked why the identities were made public on the Villeneuve matter but not in Densham’s case. “The direction from the province is that the investigation process should be confidential,” he added, “depending on the nature of the complaint.”
“In this case, knowing who the complainant was wouldn’t have assisted the member in responding … because the identity of that person was not integral to the complaint,” Fleming said, also refusing to reveal if there was more than one complainant in the Densham case.
Fleming serves as integrity commissioner for a number of municipalities. Some have never had occasion to use his services, while others are even more frequent users than North Stormont, he said. “To say having two complaints in a municipality is unusual, I wouldn’t say that.”
Some complaints never rise to the level of warranting investigation, he said, also declining to reveal if he’s had such complaints in North Stormont.
It’s only since March of 2019 that municipalities have been required to have an integrity commissioner — whose workings can seem strange with a lack of sacred traditions otherwise found in the legal system, such as full disclosure, discovery of evidence and the right to know and face one’s accuser. Fleming explained this is because the integrity commissioner works as an administrative process and not as an adversarial judicial or even quasi-judicial one.
North Stormont is understood to have spent over $30,000 on the first integrity commissioner report into Villeneuve before his latest job on the Densham file.