Colleagues react to councillor's 'coziness' with development firm
Mayor, several councillors won't comment until Wednesday's meeting
Some of Coun. Jan Harder's colleagues on Ottawa's city council agree she should lose her seat as chair of planning committee, which was one recommendation from an integrity report on her perceived conflict of interest with a development consultancy.
Integrity commissioner Robert Marleau recommended the veteran Barrhaven councillor be removed from the committee entirely after concluding she "tainted" the city's planning process by mismanaging her relationship with The Stirling Group.
"We hired an integrity commissioner to increase accountability for the politicians," noted Gloucester-South Nepean's Carol Anne Meehan. "There were perceptions that some of the relationships between city councillors and developers were too cozy. This has been given serious consideration by the integrity commissioner."
"I think we have to accept his recommendation," agreed Bay ward Coun. Theresa Kavanagh who was "stunned" when she heard his findings, then spent the weekend reading his report.
100% committed to integrity
Over 101 pages, Marleau described how Harder had recruited the daughter of development consultant Jack Stirling in 2017. When Alison Stirling, now Alison Clarke, left Harder's staff to work for her father's firm, Harder then put The Stirling Group on three sole-sourced contracts to continue providing briefing notes and planning advice. The third contract was signed at the end of March 2021 as the commissioner was wrapping up his investigation, and not part of his report.
Jack Stirling is registered as a lobbyist, and the company did bring files before Harder's committee for approval while on contract with her office.
Marleau found no proof that the relationship actually influenced Harder's decisions on files at committee or council, but said "it is all about perception" and Ottawa's rules say councillors must avoid even "apparent" conflicts of interest.
She missed the point ... that it's not how you do things. You can't have that coziness.- Coun. Theresa Kavanagh
In Harder's comments attached to the report, she said serving as planning chair has been a highlight of her 24-year career in municipal government.
"I have always, and continue to demonstrate 100 per cent commitment to integrity in all my decision making," Harder wrote. She considers Stirling a longtime friend and mentor but wrote she doesn't make decisions based on one advisor.
Harder a 'fighter'
Kavanagh says it wasn't enough for Harder to simply vouch that everyone behaved ethically.
"She missed the point ... that it's not how you do things. You can't have that coziness," said Kavanagh. "It's exactly what the public sees as the problem with councillors is that coziness with developers."
Capital ward Coun. Shawn Menard ran in the 2018 election on a platform that included reining in what he sees as developer influence at city hall. He hopes the report on Harder will lead to an investigation of other issues, from what he calls a "revolving door" between city staff and the development industry to fundraisers for developer donations during elections.
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Menard also fought the selections for committee positions at the outset of the council term, when Harder was made planning chair and urban councillors were mostly shut out from planning and finance seats.
"It was known then that there was a cozy relationship [Harder] had with industry executives," Menard said. "Now there's more spotlight on it and there's an official report from a commissioner within the city."
Mayor Jim Watson's office told CBC News when the report came out he would not comment until council meets Wednesday. Many councillors also refused to comment for this story, while others chose to take their time with a serious report or ask questions of the integrity commissioner at council.
Menard said council should approve Marleau's recommendations, but Meehan doesn't know what to expect from Wednesday's meeting or from Harder herself.
"She's a fighter. She does not see that she's done something wrong, and to me that's a big issue," said Meehan.