Napanee Council rejects integrity commissioner’s recommendation

Councillor Michael Schenk was found to have broken the Code of Conduct for Members of Council, but his fellow councillors decided not to discipline him. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell/Kingstonist.

At a special meeting on Tuesday, Jul. 25, 2023, the Council of the Town of Greater Napanee rejected by a vote of three to two the recommendations of the Town’s integrity commissioner that Councillor Mike Schenk, who broke the Code of Conduct for Members of Council (Code), be reprimanded. The tension in the room was electric, and some Town staff members made their displeasure audible.

The integrity commissioner, in a report dated July 18, 2023, found that Schenk had violated the Code by making repeated public critical remarks about a senior member of Town staff. Laura Dean, a Partner at Aird & Berlis, the Toronto law firm hired by the Town to act as Integrity Commissioner, appeared at the meeting via Zoom to discuss the findings of the report.

Before Dean could begin her remarks, Councillor Schenk took his leave of Council and left the room, giving no audible explanation. Mayor Terry Richardson allowed it, as there was no rule saying the member had to stay.

As previously reported, the commissioner found that Schenk’s comments during a council meeting in May were intended to publicly undermine the Town employee’s professionalism or to mock him in front of Council, members of the public, and his colleagues, and that his conduct was “not respectful, professional or courteous,” key principles outlined in the Council Staff Relations Policy (CSRP).

Schenk left the room while the integrity commissioner made her report. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell/Kingstonist.

Section 7.2 of the CSRP states that “In all respects, Members and Staff shall: relate to one another in a courteous, respectful and professional manner; maintain formal working relationships… which includes but is not limited to using proper titles and avoiding first names during public meetings or formal business dealings…; appreciate and respect the roles and responsibilities of the other; work together to produce the best results and outcomes for the Town and always for the collective public interest of the Town; and act in a manner that enhances public confidence in local government.”

As such, Schenk contravened not only CSRP section 7 but also sections 4.1(b),  5.3  and 5. 4 of the Code, Dean found. The commissioner recommended that he be reprimanded; since this was the first recorded time Shenk violated the Code, she did not recommend any further sanctions, such as suspension of remuneration, at this time.

Dean fully explained how she came to this decision: by reading the complaint, watching the video of the meeting, questioning both Schenk and the staff member named in the complaint, and allowing them both to make more submissions having read her reports. Schenk, she said, did not submit a response when given the opportunity to make a further final response to the report.

Following her presentation, Dean took questions from Council.

Councillor Dave Pinnell asked why Schenk was in contravention of the code “if the councillor was just making a question and reusing the [terminology]” of a comment made by the Town’s Chief Administrative Officer, John Pinsent.

Dean answered that it was because Schenk had specifically singled out Brandt Zatterberg, General Manager of Community and Corporate Services, by using his first name: “It was the manner in which the member specifically named the Town employee, combined… with the other incidents… If it had been maybe just that comment alone, perhaps the analysis would have been different. However, this seems to be part of a continuing series of comments that had been made by this member to this particular staff member… That made it fairly clear that… the staff member had been singled out by this particular councillor.”

Councillor Bob Norrie, rather than asking a question, took issue with the commissioner’s investigation; he said, “On that note of toxicity, I don’t think your investigation is complete on that.” Norrie stated he has been on council for four years and that, during the integrity investigation, no one had asked about the history of that subject.

Councillor Angela Hicks then asked, “So if we removed the toxicity comment and the political suicide [shooting] gesture made in reference to selling South Fredericksburg Hall — and I distinctly remember that conversation — what we’re left with is the comment about [the employee] sleeping during a council meeting. That’s it. That’s the only thing that is on the table for discussion right now regarding a reprimand?”

Dean said no, that the toxicity remark, in combination with other remarks at the meeting, was how Schenk’s behaviour had violated the Code.

Councillor Bill Martin stated, “This whole thing is particularly troubling… Ms. Dean, you’re 100 per cent sure that you’ve done a thorough investigation of this, and I’m not questioning your work ethic, but … it just seems like it leans towards one particular person… There seems to be some difference in what was meant versus what was said… I guess I’m old school: I always believe that when you’re wrong, you apologize and shake hands. I’m personally sorry that it came to this. But I just want to make sure that you are personally sure you’ve investigated this to the maximum… and are sure of your findings.”

Dean again explained her process and her duties as integrity commissioner: “Yes, I reviewed the audiovisual recording; I’ve received response from both the member and the town employee. It’s not our role as integrity commissioner to, for example, interview business owners to determine whether or not there was toxicity… We’re not doing interviews about council business. We’re looking at the Code of Conduct and the conduct of members at a particular meeting, in this case, and so that’s what I reviewed.”

Town staff senior management, absent Brandt Zatterberg, listen to the commissioner’s report. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell/Kingstonist.

Martin began to make another statement, but Mayor Terry Richardson interjected, saying this was a time for questions for Dean and that once she left the meeting councillors could discuss their duties with regards to her findings.

The mayor confirmed with Dean that her recommendations were just that, recommendations, and it was Council’s duty to decide what should be done in response. He also confirmed that the decision could not be put off and must be made “tonight, at this meeting.” Finally, he asked Dean to explain what a reprimand “would look like.”

Dean explained that when reprimands have been carried out by other councils, it was “really as simple as” stating that the member had in fact contravened the code and was reprimanded for doing so: “a statement denouncing the behaviour of the member.”

Once Dean had left, Deputy Mayor Brian Calver made a motion that the report be noted and received by Council, seconded by Norrie. Then councillors proceeded to discuss what to do next.

Martin took the opportunity to finish his previous thoughts, stating that the situation was “unfortunate” and he did not think that Schenk had any “ill will” behind his comments about Zatterberg. “I think our staff, though, do deserve respect and to be treated properly and in a professional manner.” He suggested it could have been better settled in the “old school way: apologize if I’m wrong and shake hands.”

Calver vouched for Schenk, saying he had known him for 39 years, and that “he says what he thinks, by times. I don’t think there was any ill will [in] his comments… However, we do have to look at this report… and we need to make a decision there. But I, personally, don’t see where there was any harm intended.”

Norrie said, “Yes, it is unfortunate… A lot of us started back in the 70s. When you worked for the public, you had thick skin, and you worked it out by sitting in a back room shaking hands, apologizing, whatever.”

“But respect works two ways… The senior manager didn’t even go to you,” Norrie went on, indicating the mayor, “and say ‘Could we talk with Mike about this?’ and settled it. I don’t know what this is costing the taxpayer. And the senior manager should know that: we’re wasting taxpayers’ money. So my respect for that senior manager is gone, to be blunt. I’m not gonna say anymore because I’ll probably get a complaint, but I’ve had it with his behaviour. They could have sorted it in the back room. We’re wasting taxpayers’ money and time. And that’s all I’m gonna say. I will not be in favour of any disciplinary action against Mr. Schenk.”

This fiery statement provoked audible noises of shock and disbelief from the staff benches in the Chamber. Those cannot be heard on the audio of the recording, as staff microphones were not turned on.

Councillor Bob Norrie and deputy Mayor Brian Calver vote not to discipline Schenk (as did Councillor Angela Hicks, not pictured). Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell/Kingstonist.

Hicks continued in a similar vein, chastising staff members for using their phones during meetings: “It has always been the policy in my previous places of employment that when you are in attendance at a meeting, your phone is down…It’s part of your job.”

She addressed Martin, who had earlier said he believed the staff member was not asleep at the May meeting as Schenk had accused, but was instead looking at his phone, which was why he thought Schenk had mistakenly suggested Zatterberg was sleeping. “Things look different from different angles, Bill. That’s all I’m gonna say,” said Hicks tersely, as Martin raised his hands in an exasperated gesture and some members of staff again scoffed audibly.

Norrie then said, “I have a motion. I move no disciplinary action. Enough’s been done, media and that… and we just move on, no disciplinary action.” The motion was seconded by Hicks.

Before calling the vote, Mayor Richardson spoke briefly, saying, “This is an extremely, extremely unfortunate circumstance. Not only does it hurt our employees; it hurts our members of Council, and it hurts our community. It puts a black eye on our community, which I don’t believe we need.”

He continued, “I think we have to move forward from that because we cannot continue to go down the path that we’re going down. So I’m hoping that we’ve reached where we needed to reach. We’re going to move forward. We are going to be successful. And we’re going to have a community that everybody is proud of.”

“I’m hoping today is day one of a very, very forward special movement that we can be proud of in this community, this corporation, and this Council. I’ve said enough,” Richardson concluded, calling for the vote.

Councillors Norrie and Hicks and Deputy Mayor Calver voted that no disciplinary action be taken, with Martin and Pinnell opposed. Mayor Richardson did not participate in the vote, and no recorded vote was requested.

Councillor Hicks left the chamber to retrieve Schenk, and the room was full of awkward whispers for one minute and thirty seconds. One spectator wondered aloud if Schenk had “gone home,” while another joked, “Maybe he’s asleep.” Schenk then returned, making no comment.

One thought on “Napanee Council rejects integrity commissioner’s recommendation

  • ‘Old Boys Club”. Sweep it under the rug and hope we all forget.

    What I see here is zero ideology from these elected officials for progress for the Town of Greater Napanee. I just see a fruitless four years of directionless for the Town of Greater Napanee. Terrible behaviour.

    Already rejecting provincial standards of good governance for municipalities.

    I am ashamed of this behaviour.

    Zero leadership from the mayor – big fail of leadership. Unless this is something he agrees with this behaviour, then we as constituents, are in trouble.

    Good governance is fundamental to a Town’s success. It enables and supports a Town’s compliance with the law and relevant regulations. It also promotes a culture in which everything works towards fulfilling the Town’s vision.

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