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‘The conduct of councillors is out of control’: Name-calling, bullying and squabbling at Richmond Hill council has brought city business to a standstill -- with no solution in sight
Oct. 1, 2021
Noor Javed

After 15 years on the job, Mayor Dave Barrow’s last council meeting as an elected official ended with arguing, yelling and half the Richmond Hill councillors walking out on him.

A week later, he stepped down.

Barrow’s sudden departure worsened an already dysfunctional council rife with childish squabbling and incivility among its remaining eight members -- where even routine business like approving an agenda can take hours.

Frequent council votes split 4-4 have halted city business, with the politicians failing to approve important items such as an affordable housing strategy and online voting options for the next election.

Residents say they expect debate at council, but to see their elected officials constantly bickering, bullying and name-calling has made them feel “hopeless.” While it’s embarrassing for the city, it also points to the gaps in provincial regulation that offers little remedy for when councils and politicians go rogue.

“It is such a disservice to the public when every meeting is basically jockeying for power, throwing a monkey wrench into thing,” said Richmond Hill resident Carol Davidson, the co-founder of Council Accountability Group (CAG), a community group working to increase citizen awareness.

“It’s gotten to the point where I don’t see how any business will get done, because every time there is a tie on a matter, the motion doesn’t carry.”

Davidson said the situation went from “bad to worse” once the mayor quit after a six months’ leave. In his resignation letter, Barrow said he was “grateful to return to council,” but “following that meeting, and after much consideration, I have decided to step down from my duties.”

This week, the meeting to decide whether to call a byelection to fill the mayor vacant seat or appoint someone ended up in a raucous five-hour session filled with yelling, insults and constant interruptions.

At one point, acting mayor Joe DiPaola temporarily ejected regional councillor Carmine Perrelli.

“I have been as nice as I possibly could,” said DiPaola. “He is no longer a part of this meeting. He is no longer welcome at this meeting.”

“You don’t have the authority to do that,” Perrelli responded. “The people of Richmond Hill elected me and you have decided you are going to silence me.”

During the proceedings, Perrelli repeatedly interrupted fellow councillors, berated the city manager, telling her that he “would appreciate it if you would listen and not speak,” and shouted at the meeting’s chair, accusing him of “acting like a dictator.”

“The corrupt practices of the chair will not go unchallenged,” Perrelli charged.

After eventually being allowed to rejoin, Perrelli said he “would try to keep his passion under control.”

In an email following the meeting, Perrelli said: “Richmond Hill council, like all councils, is a place for lively discussion and a fulsome exchange of ideas. The only dysfunctional aspect of council was created when the mayor went on extended leave, creating an unfortunate situation where most votes resulted in a tie.”

Council eventually voted to hold a byelection next year, just months ahead of the scheduled 2022 municipal election. The byelection could cost more than $600,000.

Other Richmond Hill councillors told the Star that they too are tired of the unruly behaviour that has come to to define this term of council. “It’s become very stressful. It’s not meeting the expectations the public have of us,” said Ward 4 Coun. David West.

Resident John Li called the conduct in Wednesday’s meeting “disgusting” and said he did not trust the councillors to make the right decision on his behalf.

“Judging from the record, all of these councillors are only interested in their own interest,” he said. “As residents of this city, we have lost confidence in them.”

It’s unclear, however, how a mayoral byelection will rectify the situation. If a current member of council wins it will once again leaving only eight at the table.

Li said without more stringent legislation to govern the conduct of council, there is little residents can do. “Right now, the conduct of councillors is out of control,” he said. “Nobody can control them.”

Controversy has dogged Richmond Hill council since the term began, from council initially rejecting the Indigenous land acknowlegement (finally approved this year), to the dismissal and hiring of three integrity commissioners in three years. One councillor was charged with fraud, while another councillor was reprimanded by the integrity commissioner for allegedly entering into a private residence without consent. Council voted againist enacting penalities in the latter case.

Since April, the province has consulted with municipalities on strengthening their codes of conduct and introducing measures to make government officials accountable.

“One of the things they are looking at is, do we need more available remedies that can be implemented,” said Natasha Savoline, a lawyer and human resource adviser with Bernardi, a firm involved in establishing safe workplaces. “The ones in place are no big deal to councillors and are not the sort of things that will deter their conduct.”

Savoline said a complaint is required to trigger an ethics investigation over breach of code of conduct. A finding of a breach can lead to either reprimand or a penalty of up to 90 days of no pay -- which is voted on by the council.

“The big problem lies in that you can have these remedies, and tell the councillor this is what you need to do. They can say, ‘I don’t want to do that,’ and there is no recourse,” said Savoline. “So one of the things people are looking for is a way to force a councillor to resign if it’s serious conduct.”

Melissa Diakoumeas spokesperson for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing said, “We have been absolutely clear that we will not tolerate workplace harassment or discrimination of any kind.”

The province has received feedback from municipalities and is currently determining what changes may be needed, she added.

Davidson said it’s possible if a byelection is officially called council may become more civil -- or maybe not, given this week’s fractious meeting.

“There were many so many people watching. You would think they would be on their best behaviour.”