In a heated meeting Tuesday evening, Belleville council voted to fire its integrity commissioner Tony Fleming and cancel its contract with him and his firm, Cunningham Swan.
The motion to dismiss Fleming came as an amendment to a motion to discuss an annual services report penned by the integrity commissioner, where he said his services had been used eight times at a cost of $60,000 over 2019 and into 2020.
The amendment to dismiss Fleming came from Coun. Bill Sandison, who said he wanted someone with more municipal experience and someone with a flat fee agreement, rather than someone with an “open cheque book.”
In October 2019, Fleming found that Mayor Mitch Panciuk violated the municipal code of conduct on two occasions. The commissioner also looked into potential violations involving three councillors, but those were determined to be unfounded.
Coun. Ryan Williams objected to the amendment, saying there were three active investigations being handled by Fleming at the moment, but Panciuk said that was not relevant.
Those three investigations came from recent councillor complaints.
According to Panciuk, the contract with Cunningham Swan allows the city to cancel any ongoing investigation, to receive the work already done, and to do with that information what it sees see fit.
All closed meeting investigations would be bumped up to the Ontario ombudsman and the clerk said the city would be reaching out to neighbouring municipalities to temporarily hire their integrity commissioner to finish the open investigations until a more permanent integrity commissioner can be found.
Coun. Chris Malette argued against the amendment as well, saying he felt like some councillors wanted to hire an integrity commissioner that suited their needs.
“Because we didn’t like the verdict of the judge, we want to fire the judge. I think what we’re seeing here is that we didn’t like the finding that Mr. Fleming has brought, so let’s get rid of him and shop around for another judge,” Malette said.
Malette also pointed to a motion that was set to be brought up later in the evening by Coun. Garnet Thompson to bring Fleming in to discuss some of his findings — a motion that was rendered moot after his termination was passed by council. He says Fleming has never stood to speak in council since the day he was hired.
Williams repeatedly pointed to a lack of training in the municipal code of conduct as council’s biggest issue, rather than the integrity commissioner himself.
“If you don’t want to deal with an integrity commissioner, then follow the rules,” Williams said. “We haven’t had the training, we haven’t had the education through the process to make sure we are following the rules so we don’t have to use city taxpayer money to make sure that they’re rectified.”
Williams said Fleming has offered to come in and train councillors, but those offers have been refused.
Arguably, the most strongly worded admonition against Fleming came from the mayor himself, who called Fleming “sloppy,” and said he has “problems with objectivity, fairness and equity.”
Panciuk pointed to an allged error in one of Fleming’s reports, where he called Belleville a township rather than a city, as evidence that Fleming “copies and pastes” from documents he uses in other municipalities and neglects to proofread his work.
To that accusation, Fleming told Global News that he doesn’t “take shortcuts.”
“I do the work properly and diligently,” Fleming said.
Fleming added that he has been serving as integrity commissioner for somewhere between 40 to 50 municipalities across Ontario since March 2018.
Panciuk also accused Fleming of neglecting to interview the appropriate people during his investigations and said he was trying to circumvent the democratic process when he directed councillors not to discuss his findings with each other.
“Everyone around this table should have serious concerns about an unelected individual, hired by the city, attempting to step beyond the power they are given as an integrity commissioner and violate our charter rights,” Panciuk said.
Fleming took issue with those accusations, saying he interviews everyone that is necessary to an investigation.
“I take my role extremely seriously, whether people agree with my decisions, I can’t control that. What I can control is the integrity of the process, and I have no doubt in my mind that my investigations were done 100 per cent appropriately,” Fleming said.
As Panciuk was reading his prepared message to council about Fleming’s dismissal, Malette interrupted the mayor in what seemed like disagreement and was then kicked out of the meeting by Panciuk.
Council voted five to three to remove Fleming as integrity commissioner.
Also, according to Panciuk, Malette will be required to make an apology before Sept. 14.