Gananoque Town Council has reprimanded Councillor Dennis O’Connor, following an integrity commissioner’s report that concluded the councillor put himself in a perceived conflict of interest.
The report adds a more severe penalty is not necessary because O’Connor co-operated with the investigation and believed he was not in conflict.
It adds the conflict, resulting from a vote on a business operated by O’Connor’s brother, was a matter of perception only.
While the report dates back to May 18, council voted on the letter of reprimand last week.
Reached on Wednesday, O’Connor declined to comment.
On March 2, a complaint was received alleging that Coun. O’Connor voted during the March 1 council meeting despite a conflict of interest. Specifically, it was alleged that O’Connor voted in favour of a development permit application related to the Home Hardware operated by Coun. O’Connor’s brother.
This matter was investigated under the town’s Code of Conduct only, as the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act does not consider the pecuniary interests of siblings as creating a conflict of interest for a member.
The town’s integrity commissioner, Tony Fleming of the Kingston law firm Cunningham Swan, conducted an investigation and found O’Connor voted on a development permit application pertaining to the expansion of the Home Hardware operated by his brother, Ken O’Connor. Coun. O’Connor did not declare a conflict of interest or recuse himself from the vote, the report notes.
In his response, Coun. O’Connor indicated that he has severed his association with his brother and further, that his brother does not own the land or the building but merely rents it.
However, Fleming cited legal precedent to note that an apparent conflict of interest exists when someone could reasonably conclude that a conflict of interest exists. In other words, it is a matter of public perception.
“Public perceptions of the ethics of public servants are critically important,” the report reads. “If the public perceives, even wrongly, that public servants are unethical, democratic institutions will suffer from the erosion of public confidence,” Fleming writes, quoting a judge’s ruling in a Toronto case.
“As such,” Fleming adds, “even where a real conflict of interest may not exist, an apparent conflict of interest may exist based on what a member of the public would reasonably conclude.”
Fleming found that O’Connor had an apparent conflict of interest when voting on the development permit application. While Coun. O’Connor indicates that his relationship with his brother who operates the property that was the subject of the application is severed, this would not be known to a member of the public, Fleming concludes, noting that a member of the public could reasonably conclude that a conflict of interest existed.
Although Coun. O’Connor’s brother may not own the land, the integrity report says this does not negate the appearance of a conflict of interest as an expansion of the store is likely to create a financial benefit to Coun. O’Connor’s brother. Fleming notes member of the public could reasonably make this conclusion.
Fleming recommended that council issue a reprimand to Coun. O’Connor to demonstrate that council expects its members to avoid both real and apparent conflicts of interest when voting on matters at council meetings.
The report does add that a more significant penalty is not deemed necessary, given that Coun. O’Connor cooperated fully with the investigation and was candid about the reason for his participation in the vote.
“While the fact that the councillor felt that his personal relationship with his brother was severed was not relevant to the matter of the public’s perception, it does speak to motive and mitigates somewhat the conflict of interest,” the report concludes.
Another member of Gananoque Town Council was recently called into question in December 2021, when Councillor Mike Kench’s Holocaust comparison regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent restrictions led to his suspension.
(Keith Dempsey is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Brockville Recorder and Times. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.)