City councillor Rick Chiarelli starts collecting his salary again this week
Former staff members say it is 'maddening' he's still in office, argue law must be changed
The 450-day salary suspension imposed on Coun. Rick Chiarelli has ended.
The punishment was the result of two damning integrity commissioner reports that found he committed "incomprehensible incidents of harassment."
Starting this week, the College ward councillor will once again collect his $105,000 annual salary. For some of the women who came forward to call out the councillor's behaviour, that's not acceptable.
"It makes me angry," says former staffer Nancy O'Brien.
O'Brien was one of almost three dozen witnesses who participated in former integrity commissioner Robert Marleau's investigation into the councillor's behaviour.
She told investigators, among other things, how Chiarelli pressured her to go braless, one of the first allegations that surfaced against the councillor when it was brought forward by a job applicant in the summer of 2019.
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"Knowing what I know, and knowing that he still holds power, that he is still placing his vote on my behalf because he is my city councillor, it is maddening."
For Stephanie Dobbs, a financial penalty does not equal accountability.
Dobbs told the integrity commissioner the councillor asked her about going braless, talked about her body, and kept a photo of her in a midriff-exposing costume on his cellphone that he showed to others. During her job interview, she says Chiarelli pressured her to tell him about a previous sexual assault.
"There are days when I feel absolutely trapped in my own head because I've had a nightmare about being in his office again," she told CBC.
"I wish that had a time limit like his pay cut did, and that I could be done and I could walk away from this, but I can't. And it's absolutely unfair and it's ridiculous. And I don't know what to say other than I know the world's not fair. But I thought that maybe we could do more about it."
In the late summer and fall of 2019, five women — three job applicants and two former staffers — formally complained to the integrity commissioner. They said Chiarelli urged them to hit on men in bars as a way of recruiting volunteers, talked about their bodies, suggested they not wear bras to events, pressed them to tell him intimate details of their lives and routinely reminded them they could be fired at any time.
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The councillor has denied all allegations and refused to participate in the process.
Council approved the sanctions recommended against Chairelli in the integrity commissioner's report — a 90-day salary suspension for each of the complainants. It's the most severe penalty available under provincial law.
Council urged Chiarelli to resign, but he refused. Councillors then reached out to the province seeking to change the law, and allow for some sort of process to remove an elected municipal official for serious misconduct.
His pay suspension became effective on Aug. 14, 2020 and ended on Nov. 6, 2021. In the meantime, Chiarelli was still a member of council with voting rights. He also collected health and pension benefits.
In an email, a spokesperson said Chiarelli has been working for free for more than a year, attending council, committee and staff meetings and hand-delivering notices of public consultations to residents of his ward despite multiple serious health problems.
'The culture is wrong'
Victoria Laaber made national headlines in September 2019 as one of the first women to speak out on the record against Chiarelli. Among other allegations, she says Chiarelli took her to strip clubs to spy on other councillors who were allegedly there, and had her wear skimpy clothing the councillor provided.
"This is common, more common than people seem to realize or care to admit to themselves," she said.
"To see like the private messages that I have gotten from people, quite frankly, across Canada, being like, this has happened to me in different circumstances with an elected official, something's wrong.
"The culture is wrong."
Laaber points out in reaction to women coming forward, there have been some improvements at city hall when it comes to hiring practices in councillors' offices, and political staffers get a dedicated human resources officer to whom they can complain.
But she says she has struggled with her mental health, which was an issue for her even before working for Chiarelli. In fact, all three women say they are in therapy, in part to deal with their time in the councillor's office.
They say they want to keep advocating for changes to municipal rules, even if it means having to retell their stories.
"I want to see legislation that will ensure that when someone is found guilty of egregious acts like this, they don't get the opportunity to continue sitting in their seat and making decisions," said Laaber. "They don't get the opportunity to potentially rerun because they feel like it in their ego needs it."
The women have mostly given up on the councillor addressing their allegations.
Dobbs points out although Chiarelli does have those health issues — he had bypass surgery in December 2019, for instance — he hasn't chosen to respond to the complaints like he has chosen to keep up his city councillor work.
Chiarelli has also filed for a judicial review of the integrity commissioner's reports, arguing council was biased against him. That judicial review decision is expected shortly.
Dobbs says although speaking about her experiences working for Chiarelli is part of her personal "journey," she's not sure she'll ever completely put it behind her.
"I don't know if you ever move on. ... I'm very tired sometimes, but I don't want to stop fighting."
Calls for change at Queen's Park
Opposition MPPs have also called on the PC government to make changes.
Liberal MPP Stephen Blais tabled a private member's bill tabled last year that would have allowed city council to remove a councillor for disgraceful behaviour, but it died on the order table when the legislature was prorogued in early September.
He re-introduced it, but Blais' turn to debate the bill doesn't come up until March 2022, which doesn't allow much time to get it passed before Queen's Park breaks for the June 2022 provincial election.
"I am hopeful the government will bring in legislation of their own," Blais told CBC.
Ottawa Centre NDP MPP Joel Harden said in an email it's "disgraceful" Chiarelli is still in office, and that he will re-table his motion calling for the Ford government to give councils the ability to "institute measures`' to remove members of council in cases of egregious misconduct.
Last March, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing did announce consultations on changing the rules around conduct in the Municipal Act, and called for written submissions that closed last July. Government officials have said little since on any concrete plans for change.