An Etobicoke community centre was admonished by the City of Toronto for its political activities supporting Ward 6 incumbent Mark Grimes during the municipal election campaign.
A legal expert says those activities could now put the centre's charitable status at risk.
CBC News has learned that in the weeks leading up to the election, endorsements for Grimes appeared on the Franklin Horner Community Centre website, at events held at the facility and in members' email inboxes.
Toronto taxpayers have contributed millions of dollars to buy, renovate and operate the Horner Ave. community centre.
Franklin Horner is also a registered charity. Rules governing charities prevent them from taking part in any partisan political activities.
In September, both Grimes and the Liberal Party rented tables at Franklin Horner’s largest event, the Extravaganza. And CBC News has obtained a copy of an email from a member of the centre's board of directors, sent days before the Oct. 27 election, urging members of the community centre to vote for Grimes.
The email was written by James Maloney, the deputy chair of Franklin Horner’s board and Grimes' former campaign manager. Until last week, Maloney was also a sitting city councillor, temporarily filling a vacant council seat.
In the email, Maloney wrote, "I have seen firsthand how Mark Grimes has supported Franklin Horner…"
Maloney continued: "The $5.4-million renovation that is currently going on is because of Mark Grimes." Maloney urged recipients to "make sure Mark Grimes is there to continue to help us."
'I was very upset'
Franklin Horner member Jane Bramwell was one of those who received the email plea to support Grimes. She told CBC News she had given her email address to the community centre's office for updates about exercise classes and social luncheons. "I was very upset," she said. "I thought [Maloney's email] was inappropriate and a breach of confidentiality."
Mark Grimes asked the City of Toronto to purchase the Franklin Horner building and lands for $4.5 million in 2009. Money from developments in other parts of Ward 6 will be used to repay the City.
According to municipal affairs lawyer John Mascarin, the email and the campaign events could prove problematic. "That’s an absolute no-no under the City of Toronto Code of Conduct for Members of council," he said. "They cannot use city resources — and that's a very broad term — and they cannot use any city buildings for anything related to any kind of personal, private or campaign election activities."
The community centre also receives $22,000 in grants from the city to operate seniors programs, and $5,000 more to cover administrative costs.
After receiving a complaint about political activities at Franklin Horner, Costanza Allevato, director of community resources for the city, told CBC News her department reminded the community centre’s board members about municipal policies which "require that grant recipients not use funds provided by the city to oppose or endorse a named party or elected official."
Allevato says the city did not find any indication that the municipal grant was being used for political purposes, "so no action was taken at this point."
Still, Mascarin says Franklin Horner’s charitable status may now be in jeopardy. "I'm sure the [Canada Revenue Agency] has all sorts of financial penalties that they may be able to impose."
Thousands of people in the community use the facility, many of them senior citizens. Franklin Horner also houses a daycare centre for the area.
Bramwell, who attends the centre's "Jazzercise" classes and social events, said she'd be devastated if Franklin Horner was penalized. "If the centre came down there would be a lot of people having nowhere to go, and this centre provides a lot of activities for people, not only in this area but all over Etobicoke," she said. "I think the incumbent should be penalized, not the centre."
In an email response to CBC News, Franklin Horner board chair Krys Angel conceded that political activity took place at the centre during the municipal election campaign. She wrote, "Our centre hosts many community events ... At almost every one some or several members of any of the three levels of government have attended. Some have rented tables, most just come to mingle."
Angel confirmed that the centre did allow both Grimes and the Liberal Party to rent tables at the Extravaganza event in September. She wrote, "It was only after this date that we were advised by the City of Toronto that organizations receiving any city funding were not to provide resources to any party engaged in election activities during our community events."
"I am always aware of the importance of our charitable status," Angel wrote, "but admit that I did not feel that including politicians at community events could affect that status."
But Mascarin says board members have a duty to understand the rules. He says, "You can't be ignorant of the law and so, it’s not a full excuse."
Russ Ford, who ran against Grimes in the election, has filed a complaint against Maloney with the Law Society of Upper Canada. "I filed the complaint there because as a lawyer, [Maloney] has a fiduciary duty to Franklin Horner to put the best interests of Franklin Horner first."
In an email response to CBC News, Angel said she does not know who Maloney’s email was sent to. Maloney did not respond to a CBC News request for information. Grimes also declined several requests by CBC News for comment.
The fight in Ward 6 proved closer than expected in the recent municipal election. Grimes collected 44 per cent of the overall vote in the ward. Russ Ford finished second with 34.1 per cent.
At the Franklin Horner Community Centre polling station, Grimes collected more than 50 per cent of the vote. Ford received 24 per cent.