Kingston Council votes for integrity investigation, against reviewing firefighter testing

During a meeting on Tuesday, Jun. 6, 2023, Kingston City Council discussed two new motions related to firefighter recruitment. Screen captured image.

Two motions related to firefighter recruitment in the City of Kingston had different outcomes during the Tuesday, Jun. 6, 2023, meeting of Kingston City Council. While a motion to launch an integrity investigation into Pittsburgh District Councillor Ryan Boehme’s involvement in the firefighter recruitment process passed unanimously, councillors ultimately rejected a motion to review the physical testing process used by Kingston Fire and Rescue (KFR).

The motion to investigate Boehme’s conduct arose from the fact that, during the March 1, 2023 meeting of Council, Boehme had spoken to and voted for an amendment to the City’s budget which included funding for KFR to hire 12 new firefighters in 2023. It has since come to light that Boehme is applying for one of the firefighter positions.

On Tuesday night, Mayor Bryan Paterson moved that Council direct the Integrity Commissioner to open an investigation into whether Boehme’s actions violate the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act or the Municipal Code of Conduct. 

Mayor Paterson speaks to the new motion while Councillor Boehme attends the meeting virtually. Screen captured image.

“We are all aware that there have been questions in the community raised about whether or not there was a potential conflict between Councillor Boehme’s role as a councillor, [including] his votes on the [KFR] budget, and his participation as an applicant in the current firefighter hiring process,” Paterson said after his motion was first presented to Council. 

“There’s only one person [who] can make that judgment: that is the Integrity Commissioner. I have spoken to Councillor Boehme, and he is absolutely supportive of an investigation into his actions, to clear the air. I think that’s important. People can have different opinions and speculations, but… at the end of the day, it’s important that… we ask the Integrity Commissioner to come investigate and then share those findings with Council,” Paterson added. 

Following the mayor’s comments, the motion passed with unanimous consent. Throughout the meeting, Boehme was absent from Council Chambers, opting instead to attend virtually. The councillor did not speak to the motion, but he did vote in its favour — and was listed as the seconder of the motion. No clear timelines were given regarding the integrity commissioner’s investigation. 

“I’ve always tried to do what is best for the city as a whole. I welcome the opportunity to work through this with the Integrity Commissioner to address the questions that have been raised,” Councillor Boehme said in response to Kingstonist’s request for comment on the matter, though he did not to expand on this or take the opportunity to share more on his side of the story.

After voting on the integrity investigation motion, Council then debated a motion moved by Sydenham District Councillor Conny Glenn, calling on the City to review the physical abilities testing for firefighter applicants. Glenn’s motion came after complaints were raised through media reports, as well as to councillors privately, alleging that certain applicants were able to re-attempt the physical test after failing it the first time. 

“What [this motion] is not is a reflection on the current applicants,” Glenn emphasized. “It’s also not a reflection on our new [Fire] Chief Monique Belair [or] a reflection on the competence of our current fire service. [It] is a motion to address concerns about the actual test protocols, specifically physical testing, including skills-based tests.”

Glenn went on to suggest that the current physical testing protocol needs review: “The current test process predates the set of applicants and the new chief. It appears that our new chief, fortunately, recognized that this group of applicants met the grade. Tests need to be a tool that is foolproof and reliable, and we need to ensure that as much as possible.”

Sydenham District Councillor Conny Glenn introduces her new motion to Council. Screen captured image.

As for what the current testing process looks like, Commissioner of Transportation and Public Works Brad Joyce described a multi-step operation.

“The physical testing phase is composed of three parts: the first part is a physical firefighter skill-testing component,… the second part is a physical test that’s done at a gym, and then the third phase, after they’ve passed [the first two], is a physical swim test,” he said. 

“Those tests are all designed to emulate [situations] that a firefighter could be expected to come up against in the real world scenarios that they have to confront.”

Following the physical tests, candidates then proceed to an in-person interview, after which a panel selects the successful hires, Joyce explained.

As for why certain applicants were able to retake the physical test during the current recruitment process, Chief Belair explained the decision was made following the first stage of testing.

“After the first test, when I… assumed the new role, we reviewed the first set of candidates, and we had an over 50 per cent failure rate, which obviously flagged concerns… I just wanted a new set of eyes to take a look at this, because I was concerned. We identified that we didn’t provide any instruction to the candidates on what they would actually be tested [for] on that day,” she said. 

The chief explained that certain applicants may not be familiar with all of the different testing aspects: “If you’re a firefighter in a small municipality outside of London [for example], you may not have survival fire ground skills, also known as ‘the maze.’ When you show up, you’re a candidate under stress already; you really want this position. To be told that you would have to perform in a maze, something you’ve never done before [and] you didn’t know would be part of the testing, might be prohibitive.” 

Chief Belair explained that, while certain candidates were allowed to retake the physical test after failing the first time, KFR did not change any of the individual requirements, including the timing constraints of the test. 

Kingscourt-Rideau District Councillor Brandon Tozzo speaks to Councillor Glen’s new motion. Screen captured image.

Once Glenn’s motion was put forward for debate, it drew a mixed reaction from her fellow councillors. Kingscourt-Rideau District Councillor Brandon Tozzo spoke in favour of the spirit behind the motion, but expressed concern about its timing.

“We just voted to have the integrity commissioner investigate a fellow councillor who’s a candidate in this process; that has to play itself out. I do not think Council should direct staff to investigate something that interferes with that in any way,” Tozzo said. 

Given that the motion asked staff to provide an updated testing program, representatives from KFR explained that the testing process is already subject to internal review, with elements evolving from year to year. Commissioner Joyce added that the internal review process will be completed in time for the next round of hiring, scheduled for 2024.  

With KFR already set to conduct an internal review of the testing process, Mayor Paterson spoke against the need for a motion from Council.

“If staff were taking the position that no review is needed and we were just proceeding as we did before, I think, given concerns raised, it would be appropriate for Council to mandate a review. But… what I’m hearing very clearly from our new fire chief is that concerns were raised and there will be a full review. Staff are going to initiate that review, and Council does not need to instruct or mandate that review,” the mayor said.

Before debate on the motion wrapped up, Glenn had one more opportunity to address her colleagues, based on the comments received from staff.

“This wasn’t just about good intent; I have good intent. It was coming with an abundance of knowledge about functional testing… Tonight, [there] was not one mention made about functional testing. Functional testing in this province is done by a number of health care professionals who are certified and required to be certified… and regulated,” she said. 

“A review is to actually ensure that we are meeting those requirements. I don’t think that the fire department has done anything wrong, but we are at a stage where we are more concerned than ever with fairness, equity, [and] ensuring that we are doing the right thing… Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t [know]. This motion is about making sure the [review] goes further, so we are keeping up with the best standards.“

Ultimately, the new motion fell by a vote of 8-3, with councillors Glenn, Jeff McLaren (Meadowbrook-Strathcona), and Lisa Osanic (Collins-Bayridge) voting in favour.

Members of the public can view the full agenda from the meeting on the City of Kingston’s City Council meetings webpage, and the meeting can be viewed in full on the Kingston City Council YouTube channel.

More information about the integrity investigation process and the City’s Municipal Code of Conduct is available on the City of Kingston website.

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