UPDATE: Just a quick update to this story. Petrowski took most of regional council to court to block the integrity commissioner’s report. The judge threw the attempted injunction out of court, and the Petrowski released the reports he tried to keep hidden from the public to the local news media.
No, really. That happened.
I honestly don’t know what to say anymore.
I really, truly don’t.
I’ve experienced the full gamut of human emotions covering and writing about this particular iteration of Niagara’s regional government: Sorrow. Rage. Confusion. Euphoria. Bamboozlement.
But no matter how bizarre things got – and Odin knows things get pretty weird in the council chambers – I could always manage shift my brain back into its factory default, analytical setting to write something so that you, dear reader, have a sense of what is happening.
But this, well, this is just different.
Somehow, despite the standard set by past crazy things this council has done – like vicious infighting, strange and pointless apologies, debates over seating arrangements, and the murder of logic – it has now managed to fuel the flames of the burning stupid to such a degree that it can cook rational thought to the point of complete disintegration as though one’s brain had been thrown into the heart of a star.
What has transpired to create such a terrifying assault upon reason? Yet another two-step of the damned around the regional code of conduct and integrity commissioner.
Here is the Reader’s Digest version: A councillor under investigation by the integrity commissioner has managed to start a process that could kill said investigation by claiming council’s code of conduct could be – and I swear I am not making this up – unconstitutional.
That pop you just heard was your higher reasoning center, in an act of self preservation, attempting to stop your brain processing this madness.
The longer explanation, which really should come with a surgeon general’s warning at this point, is that complaints against St. Catharines councillor Andy Petrowski (yes, this Andy Petrowski. And this Andy Petrowski) are the subject of at least three investigations by integrity commissioner John Mascarin. And this has caused all manner of chaos to break loose.
Before we get started though, we need a quick refresher on this council’s bizarre relationship with integrity commissioners.
One of the first things this council did after it was formed, a time future historians may simply call The Dark Times, was to banish its integrity commissioner, saying it was too pricey:
For context, the regional budget is nearly $1 billion and in 2014, the commissioner was paid about $24,000. And, you should note, the commissioner gets paid on a by-case basis.
(By comparison, the raise council gave itself at the same time it got rid of the commissioner will cost the taxpayer $28,000 a year for the next four years.)
Ultimately, they decided that regional chair Alan Caslin could do the job of council policeman. However, there ended up being so many complaints about councillors that Caslin ended up putting a motion before council asking it to reconsider the decision to toss the commissioner.
Which brings us to this month’s public meeting to discuss reforming the current code of conduct. (This process was started, for those keeping score, after Petrowski’s tweets about gay marriage and homosexualty. )
That meeting was a chance for the public, which is to say the voters, which is to say you dear reader, to provide input on what it would like to see in a new code of conduct.
For reasons that still escape me, the speakers list was arranged in such a way as to allow Petrowski to speak last, thus ensuring no rebuttal from the gathered residents. And he was speaking not as a regional councillor but as a private citizen, because apparently in Niagara one can shed one’s elected post on a whim.
On the code of conduct, Petrowski had this to say:
Notion that part-time councillor on spare time has to be held to code of conduct is unfair, says Andy Petrowski.
— Paul Forsyth (@ntwPaul) April 12, 2017
The meeting dissolved into chaos and shouting for a time. That’s Niagara’s democracy in action, folks.
This would be embarrassing enough, but that wasn’t the end of it. Because of course it wasn’t. This is Niagara, the place where rational politics comes to await an ignominious death.
At this week’s corporate services committee meeting Petrowski said he thinks, on the basis of an opinion from lawyers that he neither cited or presented to his fellow councillors, that the current code of conduct could be unconstitutional.
He said council should not proceed with anything code of conduct related, including Mascarin’s investigations – including the three probes of Petrowski himself – until such time as regional lawyer Sterling Wood and CAO Carmen D’Angelo can determine if the code is in keeping the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Which brings us to the committee’s chairman and Port Colborne Councillor David Barrick.
The proper thing to do would have been to point out that a councillor putting forward a motion to put an end to the investigations that councillor is a subject of is, on a very obvious and fundamental level, a conflict of interest.
But that is not what happened. Barrick accepted the motion, which now has to go to the full regional council for ratification on April 27.
How did Barrick react to criticism of his decision? In effect, by claiming he is a patriot.
“Maybe some people don’t respect our Constitution and our Charter of Rights and Freedoms; I, for one, do,” Barrick said. “It is imperative to get clarity on whether any code of conduct council has, or considers to have, is in alignment with our federal laws and freedoms.
The implication that anyone who thinks this process is a waste of time, is politically dubious or just wrong doesn’t respect the Charter is ridiculous. And the councillor can bleed maple leafs and hockey pucks, but it doesn’t change the fact that his decision has cast regional council back through the looking glass.
For context, the code of conduct as it currently stands says:
1. Act honestly, independently, impartially, with discretion and without regard to self-interest
2. Avoid any situation liable to give rise to a conflict of interest
3. Be mindful of the importance of their duties and responsibilities
4. Take into account the public character of their function
5. Conduct themselves in a way that maintains and promotes the public’s trust in the Regional Municipality of Niagara
6. Serve their constituents in a conscientious and diligent manner
7. No member shall use the influence of office for any purpose other than the exercise of his or her official duties
Did you catch the part where a councillor’s freedom of speech, or freedom of religion, or any other rights are denied or revoked by this code? No? I didn’t either.
Indeed, the code is so benign (your workplace likely has a stricter code) that it requires councillors to observe the bare minimum of ethical behaviour. In other words the code says “don’t be a jerk.”
But this is Niagara, so down the rabbit hole we go. Since neither Wood nor D’Angelo are constitutional experts, the Region will have to pay for one on the public’s dime. And that won’t come cheap.
Wood himself explained this to the committee and pointed out that a legal opinion won’t decide the constitutionality of a code. That can only be done by judges. Which means Petrowski or Barrick would have to challenge the code in a court of law. Which would also cost public money.
(Before we pig pile on Barrick and Petrowski, lets also keep in mind that at the committee meeting no one formally challenged Barrick’s decision. The committee is made up of 20 members of council who just let this theater of the absurd proceed.)
If regional council has any sense at all, Barrick’s decision will be overturned at its next meeting.
But this is Niagara. So who knows.