New rules to oust councillors after misconduct one step closer to approval

Orléans MPP Stephen Blais's private member's bill passed second reading at Queen's Park Wednesday evening. It was motivated by the harassing behaviour of Coun. Rick Chiarelli.

Orléans MPP Stephen Blais's bill passes 2nd reading, 3rd needed before election

Ottawa city council, provincial cabinet ministers and these protesters at a 2020 women's march have all called on Coun. Rick Chiarelli to resign. He has not. (Natalia Goodwin/CBC )

The provincial government is one step closer to changing its laws so that a city councillor who has behaved disreputably can lose their seat.

Orléans MPP Stephen Blais's private member's bill passed second reading at Queen's Park Wednesday evening — an uncommon occurrence for a non-government bill that aims to change provincial law.

It is now headed to the standing committee on social policy for more study and possible amendments.

"Harassment and abuse of women is a plague," Blais said in his opening statement in the legislature. "And tragically, as we have witnessed over the last couple of years, the halls of power in cities across this province are not immune to this plague."

Blais, who was an Ottawa city councillor from 2010 to 2020, said he was motivated after CBC and two damning integrity commissioner reports revealed Coun. Rick Chiarelli harassed former staff members and job applicants for years, as well as abused his power of office.

MPP Stephen Blais, seen here in a 2019 photo, used to sit on the same city council as Rick Chiarelli. He said in the provincial legislation on Wednesday that he often asks himself how he didn't know about his former colleague's harassing behaviour. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

There have been other stories of shocking misconduct by councillors in other Ontario cities, including Brampton, Barrie and Mississauga, Blais said.

The east-end MPP read aloud from letters written by three women who used to work for Chiarelli and who've been advocating for changes to the act.

Stephanie Dobbs, one of the formal complainants against Chiarelli, wrote that the College ward councillor "used manipulation tactics to undermine my sense of self and safety within the office, which led to my mental health deteriorating, physical illness, and thoughts of suicide."

Victoria Laaber wrote that coming to terms with the years she spent working for Chiarelli "came with a wave of shame — shame for realizing what was happening in the moment, shame for not being able to protect myself, shame due to knowing he kept up his behaviour long after I was gone, subsequently creating more victims." 

WATCH | Councillor to resume collecting paycheque:

‘It’s maddening’: Councillor to resume collecting paycheque after harassment findings

1 year ago
Duration 3:02
Former staffers Nancy O'Brien, Victoria Laaber and Stephanie Dobbs say it’s disappointing to see Coun. Rick Chiarelli still in his seat despite two integrity commissioner reports that found he had harassed several staffers and job applicants.

About half-a-dozen MPPs spoke during the debate, all in favour of the bill.

NDP MPP for Ottawa Centre Joel Harden supported the bill, saying "I can't wait for this to become law." A number of his New Democrat colleagues also spoke in favour of the bill, as did Ottawa-area Liberals.

Many, including Blais, made the point that regular Ontarians would likely lose their jobs if they behaved like some councillors, but there is no way to remove an elected official who's behaved the same way — or worse.

"Coun. Rick Chiarelli should have lost his job long ago," said Ottawa-Vanier MPP Lucille Couillard. "This bill is a common-sense reform that is badly needed."

PC government supports change

Councillors can lose their seats for breaking election spending rules and certain conflict of interest rules.

But the most severe penalty for a councillor who behaves egregiously is a suspension of pay. Chiarelli had his salary docked for about 15 months, but he's been back on the city payroll since November.

Blais's Bill 10, called the "Stopping Harassment and Abuse by Local Leaders Act," would allow for a councillor who contravened the code of conduct by failing to comply with workplace violence or harassment policies to be removed from office.

The bill proposes that a final decision be made by a Superior Court judge.

The Progressive Conservative government has expressed support for changing the law. Last March, the government quietly announced it would launch consultations "to strengthen accountability for council members" — consultations that occurred last summer.

In December, the government was expected to table a bill to change the laws regarding councillor conduct, but at the last minute, the government changed its mind.

At Wednesday's evening's debate, the PCs were represented by Stormont-Glengarry-South Dundas MPP Jim McDonell, the parliamentary assistant to the minister of municipal affairs.

He did not explicitly endorse Blais's bill, but said his party supports change.

"I believe that stronger consequences should be put in place to deter misconduct and violations of that trust," McDonell said. "We have been clear, our government will not tolerate workplace harassment or discrimination of any kind."

There are only about eight weeks left before the legislature dissolves for the provincial election. It's unclear whether Blais's bill can be passed in that time.