Mayor Bob Bratina’s resignation from Hamilton’s police services board leaves the board without a chair, and a question of who will step into the job next.
The mayor stepped down from the board on Wednesday, citing a conflict between being able to chair and also speak his mind as mayor. It marks the latest upheaval in a tumultuous year that has involved budget fights with city council, the resignation of one member and the suspension of another.
Coun. Bernie Morelli, the board's longest-standing and former chair, is a potential candidate. Morelli told CBC Hamilton on Thursday that he'd be willing to step up in the name of all the work the board has to do.
"That organization stands for a great deal. It needs leadership," he said. "If I can make that contribution again, I’m prepared to step up."
Member Nancy DiGregorio had the job and stepped down this summer, saying she’d put in her time. Members Irene Stayshyn and Madeleine Levy, both provincial appointees, did not indicate interest either.
The other two members – Walt Juchniewicz and Coun. Lloyd Ferguson – only joined this summer. Juchniewicz wouldn’t comment on his chair prospects Thursday, citing the code of conduct that governs police services board members. Ferguson said Wednesday that he’s not sure whether he’d be interested in the job.
“I don’t know what’s going on, so I’ve got to get my head around that,” he said.
Bratina stepped down Wednesday, citing his inability to speak freely to the family of Steve Mesic, who was shot and killed by officers near the Lincoln Alexander Parkway in June.
'Show me the line where you can’t say ‘I’m sorry a human life was lost.’' - Larry Di Ianni
The mayor wanted to reach out when Mesic died, he said, but he was advised not to as a member of the police services board. This conflicts with his instincts as mayor, he said.
“There’s an expectation from the broad public that the mayor should be able to discuss and make statements and help participate in what I would say is a healing process,” Bratina said in his surprise statement.
Mesic’s family and friends appeared at the meeting Monday.
“I really went through a difficult evening in looking at the faces of the family and knowing that I wanted to reach out to them but couldn’t,” Bratina said. “I had to reflect on my responsibilities as a mayor.”
Stormy year for board
Bratina’s resignation is effective immediately. A chair will be appointed at a future meeting. No member is so important, he said, that the board can’t survive without them.
Morelli didn't know Bratina was going to make the announcement.
"I'm like everyone else," he said. "I'm surprised."
The tumultuous year for the board that has included the following:
- In January, vice-chair Jim Kay, DiGregorio's logical successor, resigned.
- In April, the board passed a budget that had been slashed three times at the request of city council.
- In June, council passed a resolution asking the province for more control over the police service.
- In June, Coun. Terry Whitehead was suspended from the board pending an investigation from the Ontario Civilian Police Commission.
- Also in June, the board and council butted heads over the appointment of Coun. Lloyd Ferguson and the board's use of the word "unlawful" to describe the appointment.
- In August, Bratina became chair.
- Earlier this month, Chief Glenn De Caire, shortly after a performance review by the board, said he would not seek a contract extension at the end of 2014.
The next chair of the board needs to be someone who can not only handle these issues, but be prepared to deal with the media, said Marvin Ryder, a professor at McMaster University.
Statement from Police Chief Glenn De Caire - Thursday, Sept. 19
"Today we learned of the resignation of Mayor Bob Bratina from the Hamilton Police Services board. We commend the mayor for his commitment to community safety and recognize his significant contributions to the delivery of policing services to the citizens of our community."
"Without a strong chair, everything falls apart."
But there are few valid prospects among the board members, many of whom likely weren't prepared for this level of public scrutiny when they volunteered, he said.
"You need a chair who can step up under this kind of scrutiny for at least another six months," Ryder said.
"The soap opera is not over."
Mayors are muzzled on the board
Bratina has been criticized in social media since his announcement. But John Sewell, an Ontario police services board expert and former mayor of Toronto, says the mayor has a point.
Police services board members operate under an unnecessarily strict code of conduct inflicted on them by the province, Sewell told CBC Hamilton. And it does prevent mayors who are also board members from speaking freely.
“Being on the police services board, you follow rules that generally make it hard to say anything,” Sewell said.
Sewell cites the example of a Toronto alderman who complained about police plans to shut down a neighbourhood for the G20 summit.
Because he was a member of the police services board, Sewell said, he was charged with breaching the code of conduct. When the code is breached, even members themselves aren’t given details of the investigation.
“That’s the kind of thing that happens,” he said. “It’s entirely inappropriate and helps make the police a more secretive organization.”
Police service boards are comprised of four council appointees and three provincial appointees. The mayor is automatically a member, but can appoint a designate in his stead.
Plenty of mayors don’t serve on police services boards, Sewell said.
Police services board members are bound to the Police Services Act regulation 421/97. It forbids members from speaking on behalf of the board, interfering with the day-to-day operations of police services, or “engaging in conduct that would discredit or compromise the integrity of the board or the police force.”
Morelli said he's never felt muzzled by his role on the board.
"You have to understand the rules and understand and have respect for what the rules are and how they apply," he said.
"The rules say that only the chair can speak for the board, and that's a rule I haven't found difficult to follow."
'Walk and chew gum at the same time'
Larry Di Ianni, a former Hamilton mayor and former member of the police services board, disagrees with Bratina’s move.
He thinks Bratina offering the Mesic family condolences wouldn’t have breached the code of conduct.
“Show me the line where you can’t say ‘I’m sorry a human life was lost,’” Di Ianni said.
“For chair of the board, who happens to be the mayor, to be claiming that he can’t walk and chew gum at the same time is a very sad lack of judgment.”
“He’s saying ‘I really wanted to be the good guy here, I was told I couldn’t be the good guy, and it’s their fault.’ I don’t buy that argument.”
The Special Investigations Unit is investigating Mesic's death, and would provide no update Thursday afternoon.