Posted August 5, 2015
It all started with the friends of Farbridge, (FOF’s), seeking recourse from those perceived to be responsible for the defeat of the former mayor. It has become a publicly financed excursion muddled with one-sided statements asserting untrue claims and false accusations.
Six months after the election the Susan Watson supporters, including the Waterloo-based Fair Vote organization, identified a single candidate, Glen Tolhurst, who lost the election as councillor in ward six. Susan Watson, a personal friend and supporter of the former mayor, asked the city’s Compliance Audit Committee (CAC) to audit Tolhurst’s official elections expenses report submitted to the city clerk.
Did Susan Watson bring a knife to a gunfight?
But Tolhurst was not the Watson target. It was the role of GrassRoots Guelph Voters Association, Inc. (GRG), the citizens activist group that helped defeat the mayor. GRG was also challenged because it donated $400 to the Tolhurst campaign. But GRG was never asked to participated in the May 6 CAC meeting. But there was no doubt the Susan Watson focus was on GRG and its role in the October election.
The Municipal Elections Act, 81 (12), allows the CAC to investigate citizen complaints of irregularities in candidate financing. The key word to remember is “candidate”. The CAC can only hear the complaint based on the documents that the candidate must provide.
What has now evolved is the auditor who demands that GRG turn over confidential corporate documents.
Here are some facts that have emerged over three months between GRG, Mr. Tolhurst and Susan Watson in her attempt to embarrass and to blame GRG for her friend’s defeat, at the public expense. It’s an exercise of political chicanery at your expense.
The opening salvo
* There was a meeting held April 23 by the CAC to orient their procedures to process the complaint of Susan Watson. Attending that meeting was “ a subject matter expert” later identified as Toronto lawyer, Judy Johnson, of the firm Aird and Berlis. The minutes state that she reviewed the Municipal Elections Act 1966 relating to campaign expenses, financial filing requirements, and compliance audits. Ms. Johnson did not make any recommendation. It is important to remember that this orientation meeting was held before the May 6 meeting in which the CAC ordered an audit of Mr. Tolhurst’s election expenses.
The other person attending that April 23 meeting was Dr. Denis Galon, a member of the Susan Watson team. When questioned, City Clerk, Stephen O’Brien, said Galon was a member of the public and the CAC meeting was advertised as being open to the public on the city website. The target of the Susan Watson complaint, Mr. Tolhurst, or his lawyer, were not notified of the meeting.
* In this era of electronic communication, it’s odd that the notice of the meeting was not posted in the City News Pages, published twice a week in the Guelph Tribune. Depending on the city website to notify citizens of meetings assumes that the population depends on this media for information. Well, that’s just not true as possibly a small minority of the population would visit the site. Perhaps the city could release figures of the number of viewers and visitors to the website to check penetration of its messages and notices to the community.
* The three members of the CAC are George Gorringe, Glen Greer and Lyndsay Monk. They were appointed by the former Farbridge administration in July 2014. Only Greer and Gorringe approved conducting the Tolhurst audit. The chair was absent.
* Glen Tolhurst spent less than $4,000, including the $400 donation from GrassRoots Guelph on his election campaign. Susan Watson and partner Dr. Ian Digby, donated more than $4,200 to not only the former mayor’s campaign ($1,500). They also donated to a number of cohort councillors and candidates running for office.
* Tolhurst has had to hire legal counsel to represent him.
* GrassRoots Guelph, acknowledges the $400 donation. It was not invited to the CAC’s May 6 meeting that ordered the audit of the Tolhurst expenses. Nor has it participated in any of official meetings or hearings since Susan Watson’s application hearing. Yet GRG’s right to donate to Tolhurst was a subject of discussion led by Dr. Denis Galon during the May 6 meeting.
* At that initial CAC hearing, Galon, in support of the Susan Watson application, told the two-man CAC that Susan Watson had contacted the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, (MMAH). She asked for clarification of the position of non-profit corporations being allowed to contribute to election advertising campaigns. Galon said the unnamed Ministry official told Susan Watson that they “didn’t know” and she had to contact the city of Guelph’s city clerk.
If they don’t know, why are we having an audit?
* If the MMAH doesn’t have the answer, why is the city depending on a civilian committee to judge whether Mr. Tolhurst was wrong in accepting the GRG donation? The CAC are not lawyers and have no right to order an audit that now involves a third party, GRG.
* City Clerk, Stephen O’Brien, told Susan Watson that he could not investigate or prosecute offenses under the Ontario Municipal Elections Act (MEA). He suggested she should pursue her concerns with the city-appointed CAC.
* Stephen O’Brien admitted that a request for proposal (RFP) appointing an auditor was not issued but instead three accountant firms were invited to bid on the CAC- ordered audit. William Molson CA, of Toronto, was chosen, being the lowest bidder. His base fee is $7,500 plus $500 for every meeting he is required to attend.
* Molson was given a deadline of reporting the results of the audit by the third week in September.
The bomb is dropped
* On July 11, GRG member Gerry Barker received a phone call from Molson. It was a genial conversation to discuss the events. Then Molson dropped the bomb. He requested GrassRoots Guelph, from January 1 2013, to submit all minutes of meetings, bank statements, revenues and sources, invoices for advertising in The Guelph Tribune, names and addresses of all members, names of members of the steering committee, and dates of joining, names and addresses of contributors, a copy of the back and front of the $400 cheque sent to Mr. Tolhurst.
* Barker said he was not authorized to release that information, as it would have to be a decision by the GRG steering committee. Apparently Barker was singled out because he was one of a number of founders of GrassRoots Guelph. Or could it have been because he was the editor of the outspoken blog, guelphspeaks.ca that has been highly critical of the Farbridge administration for the past eight years?
* GrassRoots Guelph Voters Association, Inc. is a non-profit, non-partisan corporation established under the Corporations Act of Ontario. Its stated mission was to inform the citizens and encourage participation in the October 27 civic election.
* Then came the second call from Mr. Molson that was answered by Barbara Barker who chatted briefly with the caller. Once on the line with Gerry Barker, Molson again said that he needed the GRG corporate documents. Barker gave the same answer as before. Then Molson said a couple of interesting things. First, he admitted that the Ministry of Municipal Affairs should settle this case. He intimated it was not the job of his audit. Further, he said that any GRG information would not be shared with anyone else. His final words were that he had to wrap up this phase of audit by the end of July.
Instead, on July 27, the Barkers were served with a summons to appear in city hall today, August 5, before Mr. Molson to produce the GRG corporate documents he requested.
The outcome of this summons will be published tomorrow August 6, on the blog guelphspeaks.ca.
GRG could be punished for refusing to present the requested documents
* Molson said during the phone call that as auditor under the Public Enquiries Act, he could order compliance with his request for GRG documents or ask a Superior Court Judge to force GRG to comply and it could face punishment.
* On advice from legal counsel, GrassRoots Guelph Voter’s Association, Inc. has done nothing wrong. As such, the corporation, under the Municipal Elections Act, can make donations to municipal candidates.
* Also there is no mention in the MEA that prevents third party participation in municipal elections.
* It appears there is no grounds to insist that the auditor, acting under the authority of the CAC and appointed by the city, can legally order a corporation to surrender confidential documents.
* GrassRoots Guelph was not a candidate in the October 27 civic election as the MEA specifies.
GRG is the fish and the auditor has the net
* This is nothing but a political fishing trip by the FOF’s to use the city and its resources to assist the auditor to gain information and intelligence of GRG that is not his business or that of the city’s. Funding this expedition are the citizens of Guelph.
* GRG funding was purely voluntary by citizens who opposed the Farbridge administration and believed it had the right to do so under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
* Susan Watson and friends have now poisoned the well to persuade capable, civic-minded people, to run for municipal office if this experience could happen to them.
The possibility of personal lawsuits emerges
* The fallout of this exercise could result in personal lawsuits directed at the perpetrators of this complaint and audit.
* If it proves anything, on October 27, the people thoroughly rejected the influence and role by members of a national political party (New Democratic Party), dominating the affairs of our city.
Finally, what is the outcome of this audit? Any decision will not alter the October election results one iota. Why is the city allowing the spending of thousands of dollars to settle a political score over the defeat of the former mayor?