Calgary

Calgary city council watchdog still hasn't ruled on complaints filed in 2018

City council's decision to create an integrity commissioner to handle complaints of misconduct might still be a relatively recent one but some councillors say the job needs a tune-up.

Integrity commissioner said a year ago that a councillor should apologize for his conduct

Integrity commissioner Sal LoVecchio's two-year contract is up in May, but he still hasn't released a report into complaints filed in 2018. (Scott Dippel/CBC)

Calgary city council's decision to create a position for an integrity commissioner to handle complaints of misconduct might be a relatively recent one but some councillors say the job already needs a tune-up.

There's growing unease with the outgoing holder of the job, Sal LoVecchio, over the way he's handled the role. But there are also concerns that the rules for the job need to be looked at.

The latest controversy involves some longstanding complaints against Coun. Jeromy Farkas. 

It's a situation that should have been resolved in 2019 but it's still dragging on with no end in sight.

In 2018, city council voted 14-1 to eject Farkas from a council meeting. In that moment, it was because he disagreed with information from the city's chief financial officer about a council pay raise.

But it was his decision that day to post a picture on social media of a scorecard that showed a council vote that never actually took place that sparked ire both inside and outside of the council chamber.

At least 3 complaints made

It led to at least three complaints to the integrity commissioner that Farkas broke council's code of conduct.

One of those complaints against Farkas was initially signed by every other member of council.

Under the terms of reference for the integrity commissioner, LoVecchio's job is to determine first if there's any potential merit to the complaints.

He can then try to mediate a solution to the satisfaction of all parties and can ask council's ethics advisor to assist in that process.

However, if there is no satisfactory resolution, then LoVecchio can conduct an investigation and report within 90 days. For more complex matters, that can be extended.

In this case, confusion is the watchword.

Farkas believes matter is resolved

Farkas refused to do an interview with CBC News on what's happened. 

But he did say that he wrote a letter to his council colleagues in December 2019, acknowledging that a year had passed since the incident and that he would do his best to work together with them in the future.

He said that he considered the matter resolved.

Farkas could not quote from the letter nor would he provide a copy of it.

Councillors stood behind Mayor Naheed Nenshi in 2018 as he spoke defending the unanimous decision to remove Coun. Jeromy Farkas from a council meeting. (Scott Dippel/CBC)

CBC News has obtained correspondence from LoVecchio to a private citizen about the matter in April 2019. This was five months after the complaints against Farkas were submitted to the integrity commissioner.

"It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out the solution," wrote LoVecchio.  "He [Farkas] must withdraw the posts, which he has done albeit in two instalments, and apologize."

To this day, several members of city council say they have never received an apology from Farkas. 

They have also no idea what is happening with LoVecchio's investigation or why the matter is taking so long to resolve.

'This should have been resolved,' Gondek says

Coun. Jyoti Gondek feels the entire process has gone off the rails.

"This should have been resolved quite some time ago," said Gondek. "This is not a complicated matter to investigate and make a decision about."

When informed about LoVecchio's correspondence on the complaints against Farkas and that it indicates LoVecchio had essentially reached a conclusion a year ago, Gondek said that doesn't sit well with her.

She calls LoVecchio's language "unprofessional".

"I find it unbelievable that a year later, after this communication took place with a resident of Calgary, that there's no report filed yet. That's sloppy."

This is the second time in recent months that LoVecchio has run afoul of council.

LoVecchio's recusal

In February, questions were raised about the appropriateness of some expenses claimed by Coun. Joe Magliocca for a municipalities conference in 2019.

However, LoVecchio had to recuse himself from investigating whether Magliocca broke any rules because the watchdog said he had gone for what he called a social lunch with Magliocca in July 2019.

Magliocca charged that $163 lunch to taxpayers and he was later reimbursed.

When that information came to light, Gondek and Coun. Jeff Davison suggested that LoVecchio might consider stepping down from the job or be removed.

Their position was that LoVecchio should theoretically only ever sit in judgment of the 15 members of council, so he should not have any social dealings with any of them. 

However, council never actually voted in February on a motion to remove LoVecchio. 

Instead, the investigation of Magliocca was handed to the city auditor who has hired outside experts to conduct a forensic audit of his expenses. A report is expected later this year.

Commissioner says report may yet come

LoVecchio turned down a request for an interview on the Farkas complaints because he says the matter is still before him.

That is contrary to Farkas' perspective on the matter.

LoVecchio tells CBC News that if an amicable resolution cannot be reached between Farkas and the complainants, then either he will write a report with his findings or his successor will complete the job.

LoVecchio's two-year contract is up at the end of May. A sub-committee of councillors has been given the job of selecting a new integrity commissioner.

In the past, the position was considered a part-time job as the integrity commissioner only responds to complaints received. 

In 2018, the integrity commissioner was given a $2,000 monthly stipend by the city plus $200 for each hour worked.

The city has not responded to requests about the job's current level of pay so it isn't known if those figures are still accurate.

LoVecchio has agreed to stay on in the position until his successor is in place, which he understands may not happen by May 31 as the COVID-19 pandemic may slow down the selection process.

Gondek said as a member of council, she was not advised of that.

"I tell you, if there's cases left open — especially if they have been lagging and lingering — I'm not going to be very happy with the fact that he didn't do his job," said Gondek.

Three members of council tell CBC News that during the time he has been seized with the complaints against Farkas that LoVecchio has approached them individually to ask if they would consider withdrawing their signatures on the complaint.

Process 'not working,' professor says

For a political studies professor at Mount Royal University, it shows a flawed process that needs some fine tuning.

Lori Williams said the way the Farkas complaints are being dealt with seems unfair to both the complainants and the councillor who is has been publicly accused of misconduct.

"There's no apology. There's no official report. Even other people on council don't know how this has proceeded," said Williams.

"The accountability and transparency parts of this don't seem to be working and effective oversight requires that there actually be consequences if someone has behaved unethically." 

In this case, Williams said there appears to be no incentive for Farkas to cooperate with the process as the publication of a report into his conduct hasn't happened.

"Unfortunately because the process has not worked, it now looks as though a councillor or someone working for a councillor can refuse to participate in or be willing to resolve the dispute and there is no concern about their behaviour being publicized down the road."

"Unethical behaviour essentially can go on with impunity. And that's not good for individual councillors. It's not good for council and it's not good for voters," said Williams.

New marching orders needed?

The situation has Gondek already looking ahead to the selection of the next integrity commissioner.

She opposed a move to create a sub-committee of councillors to oversee the selection of LoVecchio's replacement. She'd rather see that job done by someone independent of council but her colleagues didn't agree.

Gondek is also looking at tightening up the terms of reference for the job to ensure complaints like these ones cannot drag on without resolution.

When asked if perhaps adding to the council code of conduct that they should be prohibited from meeting socially with the integrity commissioner, Gondek said that might be a good idea.

That way, she said, it could prevent a repeat of the Magliocca situation by putting on the onus on the politicians to avoid that situation and not relying on the integrity commissioner. 

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