Ottawa planning chair faces calls for resignation after integrity commissioner report

Ottawa city council will consider a report from the integrity commissioner on Wednesday that calls for the removal of Coun. Jan Harder from her role as chair of planning committee. Nick Westoll / File / Global News

Some community groups in Ottawa are calling for the chair of the city’s planning committee and Barrhaven Coun. Jan Harder to resign after the integrity commissioner found she contravened council’s code of conduct.

Integrity Commissioner Robert Marleau’s report, which heads to council on Wednesday, found Harder was in violation of the code of conduct in relation to her employment of Alison Clarke, daughter of well-known Ottawa development consultant Jack Stirling.

Marleau’s 100-plus page report, which included a probe by a third-party investigator, found that the nature of Harder’s employing Clarke as a councillor’s assistant gave rise to an “apparent conflict of interest” that “tainted” the city’s development and planning process. So too did a period of unpaid services provided to the councillor’s office by The Stirling Group.

Marleau’s report recommends docking Harder 15 days pay and removing her as chair of the planning committee, a role she has held since 2014.

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Harder, in a written response included in the report, denied any wrongdoing.

“I have always and continue to demonstrate 100% commitment to integrity in all of my decision-making,” she wrote. She also defended her “long-standing relationship” with Stirling and praised his “solid planning advice.”

She called the report a “politically motivated” attack by an anonymous individual, who first filed the complaint against Harder in April 2020.

The complainant cited a Spring 2019 issue of The Leveller, an independent Ottawa newspaper, which first flagged Clarke’s employment in Harder’s office. She has since moved on to a role within The Stirling Group itself, where she had also worked before joining Harder’s office.

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In his report, Marleau said he found the complainant in this case to be “credible, honest, and open.”

Advocacy group Horizon Ottawa is among those calling for harsher consequences than Marleau outlined in his report, launching a petition on Monday calling for Harder’s resignation.

Speaking on Horizon Ottawa’s behalf, Sam Hersh said Monday that the report signals the need for “greater change” to the degree of developer influence on city council.

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“It’s not just about Jan Harder. It’s about the state of our campaign finance system and the state of our planning system,” he told Global News.

Hersh would like to see pressure at the municipal level to change Ontario’s campaign financing laws to tighten limits on single donations.

Campaign financing rules for cities across Ontario were already adjusted in 2016, ahead of the 2018 municipal election, banning corporate donations. Individuals are currently capped at donations of $1,200 per contribution.

Horizon Ottawa launched a campaign in August 2020 to track contributors’ donations to councillors’ campaigns and their ties to developers.

Deirdre Stirling, who Horizon cites as a member of the aforementioned family, donated the maximum $1,200 to Harder’s 2018 campaign, for example.

“If you have 12 developer friends they can basically, with their max donation $1,200, fund an entire campaign,” Hersh said.

The perceived closeness of developers and Ottawa city councillors, especially those that sit on planning committee, is often a subject of scrutiny.

Harder has drawn controversy in the past for hosting developers at charity golf tournaments, according to previous reporting by CBC.

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Joining Horizon Ottawa in calls for accountability at City Hall are Ecology Ottawa and tenants rights group ACORN.

The groups are planning a press conference ahead of Wednesday morning’s council meeting demanding action from the councillors who will vote on whether to adopt Marleau’s recommendations and reprimand Harder.

Hersh said he expects allies of Harder on council will seek a softer penalty for her contraventions than what’s suggested in Marleau’s report.

Should that come to pass, he said that Ottawa residents should be mindful of which way councillors vote when the next municipal election rolls around in 2022.

“What’s obvious then is that our next fight really is making sure that a lot of those folks that are there and vote down the recommendations need to lose their jobs in the next election,” Hersh said.

A staffer with Harder’s office denied further comment when contacted by Global Ottawa.

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