The Town of Greater Napanee has passed a unanimous motion to investigate the sale of municipally-owned property going back up to ten years. The motion passed at a special council meeting on Tuesday, Jul. 21, following the release of a citizen’s investigation into suspected favouritism in a municipal property sale in 2019.
“Perhaps we can end the speculation, and the accusations of being racist, of trying to favour one bid over another, show the public that we’ve heard their questions, and want them to be answered in a clear and concise method,” said Mayor Marg Isbester, as she laid out the motion.
“Tonight as a council, we are asking for a complete, independent review of surplus property sales, not just in recent years but maybe going back for eight to 10 years,” Isbester said.
“If there are suggestions for adjustments and methods that Council sees as beneficial and transparent, I’m sure we would be happy to adopt them,” she added.
Council decided that the review should include property information; any instructions to and from council regarding surplus property sales; advertising methods; whether the sales took place in an open market or through a tender process; assessments; appraisals; asking price, minimum price; instructions on whether to accept high, low or any bids; as well as the bid opening process.
In addition, Council decided that it should also include a checklist for the process in total, including closing of the transaction, release of information when the transaction is fully completed.
The Town’s CAO Ray Callery also brought forward a recommendation from staff that council instate a moratorium on future land offers or sales until the report is complete.
Callery’s recommendation explicitly excluded three properties from that moratorium, including the town’s former library at 37 Dundas St. West.
When the council voted to declare the Old Library property as surplus in April 2019, Mayor Isbester recused herself, citing a personal conflict of interest at that time.
Mayor denounces accusations ‘from a Facebook page’
Municipal property sales have come under public scrutiny over the past six weeks, as Hubert Hogle, the town’s former solicitor and a director of the Greater Napanee Ratepayers Association (GNRA), began detailing a 2019 transaction on the GNRA website and Facebook page.
Greater Napanee sold a property at 32 Oke Road by public tender in Apr. 2019 to a numbered corporation owned by the town’s former mayor. A higher bid was rejected during the tender process because it was submitted four minutes past the deadline. A previous, higher offer made to council earlier in the year was also dismissed.
Mayor Isbester said that the Town has received numerous calls from constituents since Hogle began writing about the property sale.
She publicly denounced Mr. Hogle’s use of social media during the Jul. 21 meeting. “We are not obligated to respond to accusations, innuendos, accurate or not, from a Facebook page,” she said. “That is not the way any government should operate.”
“If Mr. Hogle has accusations he should be making them by deputation or even correspondence, not by social media, in my opinion,” she said. She added that “council’s response should always be to everyone, not just to those who follow his page.”
Report timeline and budget undetermined
The motion originally set out by the Mayor indicated that the report should be completed in time for the second Council Meeting in September. The Mayor also suggested a maximum budget for the investigation between three and five thousand dollars.
Councillor John McCormack suggested the dollar amount was too low, and the time frame too short.
“To get a proper investigation we don’t want somebody being rushed,” he said. “I’m open to hearing from proponents what they’re going to recommend for a cost and a timeline.”
Deputy Mayor Max Kaiser suggested the cost might end up being closer to ten or fifteen thousand dollars. “You’re looking at a review of ten years of minutes, that’s a very lengthy review,” he said. “It might be higher than that.”
Ultimately the council determined to seek a report in phases, with the prospective consultant outlining multiple stages of work and cost, starting in August.
To expedite the process and reduce expense, Kaiser suggested Greater Napanee staff begin the work. “Between now and August I expect our staff can begin some background gathering of data,” Kaiser said, “We can do some of it in-house at least in providing the data to the consultant.”
“I’m sure we’re going to hear tomorrow that we whitewashed this issue, that we danced around it,” added Councilor Dave Pinnell.
“I am very passionate about this whole issue that has arisen. I just want to make sure that everybody knows that we are not side-stepping something. We are providing a report that is going to be very transparent. Before I end up saying something that I shouldn’t, I’ll just leave it at that.”