School board trustee Skinner in hot water again over work for lobbying firm

The chair of the Thames Valley District School Board is looking into whether Jake Skinner has violated the trustee's code of conduct while lobbying on behalf of a group that opposes a supervised drug consumption site near a high school.

Thames Valley District School Board trustee Jake Skinner is a lobbyist for Blackridge Strategy

Jake Skinner, trustee with the Thames Valley District School Board, is in hot water again. (Supplied)

The chair of the Thames Valley District School Board is looking into whether Jake Skinner has violated the trustee's code of conduct while lobbying on behalf of a group that opposes a supervised drug consumption site near a high school. 

Skinner is listed as the lobbyist working on behalf of Blackridge Strategy Group for the Midtown Ratepayers Association, a group actively opposing the health facility at 446 York Street.

Skinner is also the school board trustee in the ward, which includes the proposed York Street site, as well as H.B. Beal Secondary School. 

"I'm in the early stages of fact-finding about this. A member of the public brought it to my attention," said Arlene Morell, the chair of the TVDSB's board of trustees. 

"Does it pass the smell test? If I wasn't concerned, I wouldn't be doing my due diligence and starting down this path of fact finding. We hold public office and we hold public trust." 

This is the second time Skinner's work for Blackridge Strategy has raised eyebrows at the school board. This summer, a formal trustee code of conduct complaint was lodged against him because of the firm's involvement in smear websites against two female municipal election candidates. 

The OPP is now looking into Skinner's actions, which has put the school board's own inquiry on hold. 

'Endangering thousands of kids'

Morell's concern comes from recent actions by Skinner's clients, the Midtown Ratepayers Association.

The group recently lost a bid to block the supervised consumption site when the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal dismissed its argument saying the drug use site would lead to public safety concerns.

In fact, the tribunal ruled that the site would actually improve public safety in the area. 

Days later, the Midtown Ratepayers Association sent a letter to the province's ombudsman, arguing that by setting up the site, city officials are "endangering thousands of children by exposing them to open drug dealing and use and other crime." 

Blackridge Strategy's owner Amir Farahi is linked in court documents to two websites that smeared female candidates in London's municipal election campaign. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

School board 'no position' 

The letter to the ombudsman also states that the board is "on record opposing this location," citing the close proximity to H.B. Beal Secondary School. 

As a two-term school board trustee, Skinner would know that the board has taken no official position on the matter of the supervised consumption facility or its location on York Street. 

Instead, the letter seems to cite a CBC News report in which a superintendent said the board would prefer the site not be adjacent or near schools. 

In 2018, then-board chair Matt Reid and then-director of education Laura Elliot wrote to the city's planning committee requesting that a 300-metre buffer be established between elementary and high schools and a supervised consumption site. 

But board records show trustees have never spoken about or voted on the issue, and Reid told CBC News that while there were issues about proximity of the York Street site, he and Elliott toured the temporary supervised consumption site and were working with the city to make sure Beal's administration worked with the future York Street facility. 

"The feedback I got when this issue was first raised was there were people who were very supportive of the place going there, recognizing it's a necessity and that we'd be working together," Reid said. "Ultimately, the location decision is up to the city." 

Blackridge responds

If the board of trustees ever did come up with a position on the site and its location, Skinner would recuse himself, a spokesperson for Blackridge Strategy said in a statement. 

"If a planning matter that might constitute a conflict were to come before the board of trustees, Jake would recuse himself," the statement said. 

Skinner is not violating the Lobbyist Registration Act because trustees are not considered "public office holders," a spokesperson for the Ontario Integrity Commissioner said. 

According to the trustee code of conduct, school board trustees must act in a manner that "will inspire public confidence in the abilities and integrity of the board," and make decisions "in a manner which is open, accessible and equitable".