Stouffville mayor's wall of photos was 'vexatious,' created intimidating workplace, probe finds

A mysterious photo collage in the mayor of Whitchurch-Stouffville's office bathroom, featuring political players and residents, was "vexatious and disturbing to staff and amounted to a serious incident of workplace harassment," an ethics probe found.

Integrity commissioner recommends Justin Altmann issue a formal apology and have pay docked for 30 days

The integrity commissioner found that Whitchurch-Stouffville Mayor Justin Altmann created an intimidating workplace and recommends he be docked 30 days pay and issue a formal apology. (Facebook)

A mysterious photo collage in the mayor of Whitchurch-Stouffville's office bathroom, featuring political players and residents, was "vexatious and disturbing to staff and amounted to a serious incident of workplace harassment," an ethics probe found. 

Integrity commissioner Suzanne Craig released a critique about Mayor Justin Altmann's crime drama-style montage of head shots of past and present council members, political rivals and town employees on Friday.

The investigation found Altmann's wall "created and contributed to an intimidating work environment," and his behaviour toward staff interfered with "the performance of their duties."

"I find that the respondent's creation of the wall was discreditable conduct that fell below the decorum expected of his office," Craig wrote in her 30-page report. 

Altmann apologizes, wages docked

Her investigation followed followed years of mounting frustrations from council, including numerous high-level staff who have gone on leave, resigned, retired or been terminated since Altmann was elected in 2014.   

The report, which is to be presented to council on Tuesday, puts forward two penalties to reprimand Altmann.

"In determining the appropriate sanctions and corrective actions, I have considered the gravity of the conduct and the responsibility of the respondent for that conduct, as well as the submissions of the parties," Craig explained. 

Mayor of Whitchurch-Stouffville, Justin Altmann, said the photos of political players taped to the wall of his office washroom were part of his own investigation to determine who was behind a smear campaign against him and drama at town council. (Facebook)

Since Altmann "demonstrated an error in judgement and not a willful desire to cause harm," Craig recommends council ask him for a formal apology, including an admonition to interact respectfully with staff and use town offices and facilities appropriately, along with suspend his pay for 30 days.

The maximum penalty under the Municipal Act is to dock an elected official three months' pay. 

"[Altmann] ought to have known that his conduct was unwelcome," the report read.

Craig also determined that while he "acted in good faith," Altmann also made a "serious error in judgement." 

Wall of photos a 'mind-mapping' exercise

Altmann told Craig during the investigation, "the purpose of photos and the display on my wall is simply a 'mind-mapping' exercise — a method I use to visually organize information." 

The photos in his collage had lines and arrows drawn between them to help connect and show "exactly what has been happening" at council, Altmann said. 

I find that the respondent's creation of the wall was discreditable conduct that fell below the decorum expected of his office.- Suzanne Craig, integrity commissioner

While Altmann's intentions were clear, Craig said, "it is clearly unreasonable to have done so on the walls of a public building, together with photographs of staff, members of council and private citizens and with captions such as 'you are dead.'"

He also alleged the complaint might be a political attempt to undermine him.

"It is my belief that the allegations that I have breached the Code may be a retaliatory response to some of the bona fide changes I have made to council and the administration," Altmann said.  

Craig found no basis for that claim.. 

"It clearly had a dramatically negative lasting impact on staff that cannot be attributed to the political agenda of the respondent's detractors," she said. 

Ethics probe opened in March

The investigation began in March when Craig says she received a complaint.

"The complainant stated that they had been approached by coworkers, who had 'stumbled upon something very evil in the Mayor bathroom' and were afraid for their safety," she wrote, noting the incident between Altmann and staff had occurred one month prior.

"Being shown the wall by the respondent with its pictures, clip art, meticulous lines, sheer size over three walls and location in the respondent's washroom was objectively reasonably vexatious to staff A who we accept was legitimately shocked and thrown off balance in a negative way," ruled Craig. 

The wall has been taken down, she noted. 

Whitchuch-Stouffville Mayor Justin Altmann, centre, and his fellow councillors on town council. (Town of Whitchurch-Stouffville)

The complaint also saw that Altmann allegedly told a staff member "that he wanted another staff person's 'head on a platter' and that he was going to 'blow up this place.'" 

Since threats of workplace violence with a criminal nature fall outside the scope of her probe, Craig's did not investigate. She says a complaint of workplace violence has been reported to police instead. 

There were also a number of other allegations that were raised during the investigation, that Craig says she couldn't look into as they occurred before Whitchurch-Stouffville instituted a code of conduct on Feb. 7. 

About the Author

Amara McLaughlin

Online reporter, CBC Toronto

Amara McLaughlin is a digital journalist at CBC Toronto. Originally from Alberta, she began her journalism career in Calgary but now calls Toronto home. She has also worked in Jerusalem, Washington, D.C. and Hamilton, Ont.