Ottawa

Jan Harder resigns from committee as gloves come off at city council

Coun. Jan Harder stepped down from her influential role as chair of the committee responsible for urban planning and development in Ottawa, and that was followed by harsh acrimony at city council rarely seen this term.

Some city councillors say mayor Jim Watson favours Harder as part of 'Watson Club'

Barrhaven Coun. Jan Harder stepped down from her powerful role as chair of the planning committee after more than six years at the helm. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

Coun. Jan Harder has stepped down from her influential role as chair of the committee responsible for urban planning and development in Ottawa, but that didn't quell harsh acrimony surrounding the integrity commissioner's report on the longtime councillor — a rare sight during this term of city council.

On Wednesday, Harder's council colleagues were set to vote on sanctions recommended in a damning 101-page report by integrity commissioner Robert Marleau, which found the Barrhaven councillor violated the councillor's code of conduct.

Among other things, Harder created a perceived conflict of interest by hiring registered lobbyist Jack Stirling and his daughter to work for her office, while Stirling represented private planning clients at city hall and even personally represented them at the committee Harder chaired.

Harder negated the suspense when she announced her immediate resignation from the committee before the vote, telling her colleagues "hyper-aggressive online attacks and libels directed at me and others since Friday threatens to curtail the city-building work that must continue at planning committee."

Mayor's motion would forgo other sanctions

Immediately after Harder announced her resignation, Mayor Jim Watson moved a motion for council to accept the integrity commissioner's report, but that would forgo many of the sanctions in the report and wouldn't officially acknowledge Harder did anything wrong.

The mayor's motion included no reprimand for Harder, she wouldn't have to reimburse the city for her legal fees, she wouldn't be docked 15 days pay, and she wouldn't have to declare $12,000 of free services as a benefit on the city's gift registry.

Many councillors wanted no part of it. Councillors Catherine McKenney and Diane Deans went as far as to accuse the mayor of creating a different set of rules for different members of council reliant on whether they were part of his inner circle.

"So what you're asking council to do on behalf of the people that we represent in this city, essentially, is to say nothing — nothing went wrong here?" asked McKenney, who represents Somerset ward.

"The fact that we have a registered lobbyist for the city of Ottawa also working on contract in a councillor's office, who is also the chair of the planning committee is OK?"

Deans said approving Watson's motion would lead the public to lose faith in city council "and with good reason."

"Frankly, if you're a member of the Watson club, there are no consequences for your actions," said Deans.

"If it was a whole bunch of other councillors that don't take their direction from you on every single vote, there would be no question that the recommendations of this integrity commissioner would be applied to the full extent."

Coun. Diane Deans accused Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson of favouring some city councillors over others based on whether they follow his lead. (CBC)

Taxpayers on hook for legal fees

When it appeared Watson's motion would not pass, Coun. Jenna Sudds moved to add that Harder be reprimanded, which is a public acknowledgement the councillor did something wrong. The motion then passed 14 to 9. 

Harder will not have to declare the $12,000 on the gift registry — significant because councillors are not allowed to accept gifts from registered lobbyists — nor would she lose 15 days of pay, as recommended in the report.

Harder, who has chaired planning committee since 2014, also doesn't have to reimburse her legal fees, which totalled $7,100 as of the end of April. The final tally will rise.

In her resignation, Harder stood by her assertion she did nothing wrong, but decided to step down due to harassment she has received since the report was released last Friday, adding the issue was distracting from the important work of the planning committee.

"There was no violation in hiring practices, no violation of the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, and no evidence of any conflict of interest," she said.

During his appearance at city council, Integrity Commissioner Robert Marleau stood by his 101-page report into Coun. Jan Harder. (Kate Porter/CBC)

Marleau stands by report

Marleau stood by his report while appearing at city council, including the recommendations. He explained a perceived conflict of interest, which has been in the code of conduct since 2013, is the "most difficult situation to explain" as one needs to evaluate each situation on its own merit and within its own context.

Council agreed to Marleau's recommendations to review the code of conduct and provide guidance for councillors hiring consultants and registered lobbyists. However, council voted against a motion moved by Coun. Carol Anne Meehan to review all planning files involving The Stirling Group.

Coun. Shawn Menard also successfully moved a motion for staff to look at instituting a "cooling off" period during which members of council and city staff would be prohibited from lobbying the city. 

These issues would be part of the governance review at the start of the next term of council in 2022.

City hall reporter Kate Porter talks to us about councillor Jan Harder's resignation from planning committee and what council had to say about a damning integrity commissioner's report on the councillor's relationship with The Stirling Group. 11:43

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