Amid all the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the most recent insult to Niagara’s political culture, amid the shaking of heads and rolling of eyes, something important is being missed.
I am referring to St. Catharines regional Councillor Andy Petrowski’s recent courtroom misadventures. But beyond the incident itself, there is something obvious and uncomfortable that we’re not talking about. But it is something that cannot be ignored anymore.
Everything Petrowski has done, every stunt, every inane and insulting tweet, and every outburst in the council chambers, is Niagara’s fault.
Meaning it’s our fault. Not just Petrowski himself, although he has to carry the consequences and responsibility for his choices. Not just regional council, although it carries its fair share of blame for its lousy decisions and for enabling Petrowski for nearly two terms.
I mean it is OUR fault. The voters. The citizens of Niagara. Specifically, those citizens who willfully disenfranchised themselves during the 2014 municipal election by refusing to vote.
You’ve heard the old saying that in a democracy the citizens get the government they deserve? Well, it’s high time Niagara took that to heart.
This iteration of council – which has brought us a string of controversies including the NPCA audit, the NRP board survey, the long spat between the chair and former CAO, who sits where in council, and now Petrowski’s antics around the integrity commissioner reports – was elected by the mere 37.6% of eligible voters who cast ballots.
If math isn’t your thing, that means that 62.4% of citizens who could have voted chose not to. How many of those people, I wonder, have complained about Petrowski in the last week, or about or council as a whole since the 2014 election?
If Petrowski and the council he sits on is the monster, then the Niagara electorate is the Dr. Frankenstein that created it.
I understand it can be hard to see it that way, especially after Niagara Regional council managed last week to sink further into the fetid swamp of the ridiculous it has been wading in since it first assumed office.
Once again, an integrity commissioner has said Petrowski’s conduct has violated the Region’s tepid code of conduct. Once again, a commissioner is telling Petrowski to apologize and to shape up or next time he will be fined.
This has happened before. It was in 2013 when then integrity commissioner Robert Swayze found Petrowski bullied regional staff. At that time he told council that if Petrowski did not improve his conduct a more severe penalty than an apology should be imposed.
Well, it’s 2017 and it seems nothing has changed. And, if we are honest with ourselves, we know nothing will change. Not so long as Petrowski stays in office and the roost at regional council continues to be ruled by the same people. And not so long as Niagara voters continue their march of political apathy when election day roles around.
For as much as this iteration of council has stepped on one rake after another, the voters put it into office. The ultimate responsibility rests on the shoulders of the citizens who duty it is to stay informed and elect their government.
The last week should serve as an object lesson of just how important it will be in 2018 for Niagara residents to pay attention to local politics and vote.
Consider the road that brought us to this point.
You may recall that one of the first things this council did was to eliminate the integrity commissioner. It did so on the grounds that council could police itself – chair Alan Caslin said he could adjudicate complaints – and it cost too much. (Council then voted itself a pay raise that cost the taxpayer more than the integrity commissioner did.)
That decision didn’t exactly pan out well for council. In December 2016, Caslin gave up the ghost on policing council, which voted to restore the integrity commissioner. Until council hires a permanent commissioner, Toronto lawyer John Mascarin is filling the role.
He has dealt with six complaints against complaints against councillors that required investigations and dismissed others. No wonder Caslin backed away.
At least three of those complaints were about Petrowski, which brings us to our most recent episode of Niagara’s Political Merrygoround of the Damned.
Petrowski tried to block the release of Mascarin’s reports. First he found support in fellow councillor David Barrick, chair of the corporate services committee, who ruled the reports should be put on ice pending some manner of legal review of the constitutionality of regional code of conduct.
When that didn’t work, Petrowski and Fort Erie resident Fred Bracken (best known for one-man street corner protests, getting arrested for assault and following around politicians, police officers and reporters with a video camera) decided to take most of regional council to court last week.
The pair filed a notice of motion for an injunction against the release of Mascarin’s reports, naming the commissioner and 24 of 31 regional councillors as respondents. Petrowski claimed the release of the reports would ruin his reputation and prevent him from getting a private sector job in the future.
A judge tossed the attempted injunction out of court and awarded legal costs to the Region.
The councillor, cribbing from Donald Trump’s Big Playbook of Political Excuses, took this with his characteristic grace:
“The judicial system is rigged from the judges all the way down to law offices,” he wrote. “Our courts will have no part in upholding our constitution if it means the politically correct crowd of politicians will lose their only tool to punish and silence folks like me willing to stand up for the taxpayers almost at any cost.”
Before the week was out, Petrowski did an about face and, now claiming he has nothing to hide, released three of Mascarin’s reports to the local news media before they could be released to council later this month.
Welcome to the cognitive dissonance of Niagara politics, folks.
In response, the St. Catharines Standard called for Petrowski to resign from office – which is the only sensible thing left for him to do if he has any concern for the citizens he is supposed to represent.
Petrowski’s behaviour has never changed and there is little reason to expect it will, anymore than there is reason to expect council itself to shape up.
As Standard columnist Doug Herod pointed out, many councillors have acted as Petrowski enablers over the years.
By way of a for instance:
- When asked about the farcical court action, regional chair Alan Caslin – one of six councillors not named in the Petrowski/Bracken notice of motion – wouldn’t comment beyond repeating the tired political trope of that focus is on job creation and the like. (Note to local politicians: Your councils manifestly do not create jobs beyond hiring municipal staff, but that is a chat for another day.) He claimed “special interests” were distracting council but has so far not said who those interests are.
- Port Colborne councillor David Barrick went along with Petrowski’s Charter challenge of the code of conduct in the corporate services committee, setting the stage of last week’s court case.
- 16 councillors voted to put Petrowski onto the Niagara Regional Police services board. That ended with Petrowski’s being prohibited from participating on the board while the Ontario Civilian Police Commission investigated his conduct. That investigation was kept from the public until revealed by the Standard.
- Following Petrowski’s comments about gay marriage in 2015, it took council nearly a month to react, and even then the response came only after the winds of public opinion were blowing against them. Council voted for a review of the code of conduct, which two years later remains a task unfinished.
- During a recent public meeting about the code review, Caslin allowed Petrowski to speak last as a member of the public rather than as an elected official.
Every councillor who voted to put Petrowski on regional committees or boards, who stayed silent during his outbursts in council or on social media, or refused to stand up for the people in the community impacted by those comments, are complicit in the creation of the state regional council now finds itself.
And this is to say nothing of more substantive issues including the regional budget, transit, the hiring of its new CAO, the region’s Ontario Works budget going into the red, and other matters about which there remains considerable debate.
What I am saying here is that this is not all about Petrowski. It is not even all about Caslin, or Barrick or whichever members of council you personally think aren’t doing the job well enough.
This is about us. The voters. The citizens of Niagara. We created this political monster through our collective apathy and our indifference.
I began this column by making an allusion to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In the story, Victor Frankenstein creates a creature he cannot control and, in the end, is destroyed by it.
Perhaps that is a metaphor Niagara voters should keep in mind as the next election approaches.
NOTE: This column was edited to correct the number of complaints the integrity commissioner investigated. -GL.