Ottawa

Integrity commissioner recommends Coun. Jan Harder be removed as planning chair

Veteran Barrhaven Coun. Jan Harder faces the prospect of losing her position as chair of the powerful planning committee after an integrity commissioner's investigation found she has "tainted" the planning process by creating a perceived conflict of interest through her close relationship with a planning consultant and his daughter.

Harder 'tainted' planning process with perceived conflict of interest, report says

Coun. Jan Harder has represented Barrhaven for nearly 24 years and spent the last seven years chairing the city's planning committee. (Laura Osman/CBC)

Veteran Barrhaven Coun. Jan Harder faces the prospect of losing her position as chair of the powerful planning committee after an integrity commissioner's investigation found she "tainted" the planning process by creating a perceived conflict of interest through her close relationship with a planning consultant and his daughter.

Integrity Commissioner Robert Marleau's 101-page report released late Friday found Harder breached the council code of conduct.

The report details the relationship between Harder, planning consultant Jack Stirling — who the councillor described as a mentor and a friend — and his daughter Alison Clarke, painting a picture of "an apparent conflict of interest and preferential access."

Harder did not respond to a request for a statement, but in the report disagrees with Marleau's findings, and declared to the investigator hired by the integrity commissioner that she has "a high degree of integrity." She added: "Guess what, so does Jack Stirling."

The councillor described the complaint against her by an unnamed member of the public as a "politically motivated attack", but Marleau wrote the complainant is "a member of the public with no connection" to Harder, Stirling or Clarke.  

The integrity commissioner found no evidence of any direct financial benefit to the councillor, but found she contravened parts of Sec. 4 of the code that deal with transparency and accountability, as well as with conflict of interest. The report says Harder also contravened parts of Sec. 13 of the code that deal with the gift registry, because the councillor received free services in between the contracts she had with The Stirling Group.

"Because [Harder] is an experienced senior member of council and... her maladministration of the relationship with [The Stirling Group] has tainted the City's planning and development process, I have decided that strict sanctions are warranted in this case," he wrote.

Robert Marleau is retiring as integrity commissioner in September. His report on Coun. Harder is likely his last to this council. (Kate Porter/CBC)

Marleau recommends Harder be removed from the planning committee — which she has chaired since the 2014 election — from the board of the Ottawa Community Lands Development Corp., the planning advisory board and that her salary be suspended for 15 days.

Although only the integrity commissioner can decide whether a councillor has breached the code of conduct, it will be up to Harder's council colleagues to decide whether to approve the recommendations at next Wednesday's meeting.

She is the third councillor this term who was found to have violated the code of conduct by the integrity commissioner, along with George Darouze in 2019 and Rick Chiarelli in two separate reports last year.

Long-time friends

Harder and Stirling have known each other since the late 1990s, when she was a councillor at the former City of Nepean and he was head planner. The councillor says she often turns to him for advice.

"He has a lot of experience with a lot of things that are relevant to the work that I do and his knowledge is invaluable ... I've never been steered wrong," Harder told the investigators.

In August 2017, Harder recruited Clarke as a councillor's assistant, but after about a year, Clarke left Harder's office as a formal assistant and returned to her father's consulting firm. Harder went on to hire The Stirling Group through three separate sole-sourced contracts to provide assistance to her in her role as planning chair.

According to the integrity commissioner's report, Clarke continued the work she had done as a councillor's assistant, such as providing briefing notes for planning files that were going to committee.

Barrhaven Coun. Jan Harder has been the chair of planning since 2014, and was vice-chair of the committee the previous four years. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

Stirling, too, did work for Harder under the contracts, advising her of any issues "where Councillor Harder requires the services of The Stirling Group," according to the report. He also worked on files with the Barrhaven BIA, where Harder's daughter is the executive director.

Meanwhile,The Stirling Group has represented private clients at the committee that Harder chairs.

The integrity commissioner cites six instances, but Stirling even appeared at planning committee just last month to argue for a client who received a controversial rezoning to allow a truck terminal and warehouse in Barrhaven. 

The report did not find any evidence that Clarke ever used any information to aid The Stirling Group's other clients, but noted she did have access to confidential information and Harder's emails for three years.

'Perceived as creating some influence'

Harder's contracts with The Stirling Group were worth $3,000 a month, paid from the councillor's office budget. For four months, there was no contract in place, but the firm still did some work for Harder, which led the integrity commissioner to conclude that the councillor improperly received $12,000 of benefits from the firm — benefits she should have to declare in the gift registry.

Harder didn't see the unpaid work as an issue.

"I get free service from Jack, and a few others, anytime I want," she told the investigator. "This is the thing. It formalizes the relationship having that contract, it's important to me to have the quality of the briefing notes that I have from Alison, but that's the extent that Alison's role is. Jack ... I've called him on some pretty significant issues."

In his report, the integrity commissioner wrote that a reasonable person "would consider the provision of unpaid services to an elected public office holder a benefit that could create an expectation of favourable treatment in the future, or be perceived as creating some influence."

Consultant Jack Stirling, shown here in this photo for 2018, has represented clients at the planning committee while his firm was under contract to Harder, the chair of the committee. (Laura Osman/ CBC)

Harder sees no conflict

At no point in the investigation did Harder concede her relationship with The Stirling Group may have appeared inappropriate.

As an example, the report details an email that Stirling sent to Harder on Aug. 6, 2019, asking for a meeting to "discuss a development that will be on the August 22nd Planning Committee Agenda."

It's not uncommon for the developers to request a meeting with a member of council — although that would have to be noted in the lobby registry — but, as the report notes, most development professionals are not on contract to the chair of the planning committee.

When the investigator asked Harder if she ever disclosed her relationship with The Stirling Group to the other members of the planning committee, she responded, "Why would I?"

The discussion continued.

"And you don't perceive this as a conflict of interest, in light of the fact that the Stirling Group is representing applicants to the planning committee and you have a contract with the Stirling Group?" asked the investigator.

"No," replied Harder.

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