RED ROCK — Ontario Provincial Police officers responded to an emergency call from Red Rock town hall in June 2010. The mayor and the new chief administrator were alleging a man was threatening them.
The police laid no charges against Lewis Martin, then a man in his late-50s, that day. Seven years later, Martin is now a town councillor, and his sour relationship with his township has experts on Ontario’s municipal governance searching for comparable examples.
Four years after that 911 call, Martin won a seat on the council in the town of 900, located 115 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay. The 45-year resident of Red Rock’s run for office can be traced back to a corner post that he says the town removed from the edge of his property when installing a water main. The mayor and township claim to have no record that the corner post ever existed.
Whatever the truth may be, the dispute has snowballed into a bizarre feud that calls into question the balance between municipal autonomy and provincial oversight. Martin’s eccentricity has alienated him from his council and its administration in the small town where everyone knows everyone else. The resulting dysfunction has drawn the ire of the ombudsman’s office, Ontario’s mechanism for resolving municipal conflict, and raised questions about its ability to resolve disputes in town councils around the province.
“I’m a councillor-in-waiting,” says Martin, who was banned from town hall property during business hours over the first half of his term. Even though these trespass orders have expired, he continues to feel marginalized by council.
A history of acrimony
Accounts of that 911 call seven years ago differ depending on whom you ask. Martin insists he just asked Mayor Gary Nelson and Kal Pristanski, the town’s clerk and chief administrative officer at the time, whether they “had their ducks in a row” — in terms of replacing his post.
Pristanski, who retired in September, declined to be interviewed for this story. Nelson also declined comment, beyond saying: "Everything seems to be working out pretty good now."
After the 911 call, hard feelings simmered for years. Martin, a retired resource sector worker, began attending council meetings regularly, and on Sept. 11, 2014, he tried to submit paperwork so he could run for council. According to Martin, municipal staff disagreed with him over submission requirements, and he returned the following day. Clerk Pristanski wouldn’t confirm the paperwork had been filed properly by the deadline. Martin believed his campaign was being undermined because of his prior conflict with administration and that his name wouldn’t be on the ballot.
All parties agree no voices were raised over the two-day candidacy application dispute, but then-deputy clerk Nancy Gladun filed a complaint against Martin under the town’s anti-harassment policy. Gladun claimed Martin took a condescending tone when speaking with her, which she said constituted bullying. At issue was whether Martin needed to open a campaign bank account prior to filing his candidacy.
“The official complaint was that I peppered her with questions,” Martin says. “I told her, ‘You should know this.’ I firmly believe the deputy returning officer that has participated in many elections should have known her job.”
Gladun became chief administrative officer and clerk when Pristanski retired. She declined to be interviewed for this story.
Pristanski investigated the incident himself and concluded that Martin had harassed city staff. Martin received a three-month trespass warrant on Oct. 20, barring him from entering municipal offices during business hours. However, he was allowed on the ballot, and ran on a platform of greater transparency.
On Oct. 27, Martin garnered 197 votes to win one of the five seats on Red Rock town council. Martin, now a councillor, was still under a trespass order, and was only allowed to enter the town hall for council meetings.
Once he took his seat, the animosity between Martin and the rest of the town council became official business. Martin refused council’s request that he apologize to staff for his behaviour during his nomination process. In response, the town administration renewed the trespass order against him three times over the first half of his four-year elected term. None of these trespass orders applied to council meetings. However, outside of council meetings, Martin communicated with city staff using the fax machine in the library, which is adjoined to the rear of town hall. In July 2015, the entire building became subject to the order, including the library.
A 2012 council resolution forbade anyone from recording meetings without the mayor’s permission. Martin requested and was denied that permission. At the same time, Pristanski was writing accounts of those meetings weekly in the local paper — reporters didn’t attend council meetings between 2010 and 2015 because of short-staffing.
“My ability to participate in my town’s affairs was absolutely being stepped on,” Martin says.
Steve Carruthers, another Red Rock councillor, contends Martin has had the opportunity to address council with his criticism in weekly sessions since his election. Carruthers also stands by how the town has dealt with the rogue councillor, and says its actions have complied with the Municipal Act.
“Mr. Martin is a crusader. In his eyes, that’s what he sees himself as,” Carruthers says. “Here’s the problem with the crusader: he hears what he wants. He doesn’t always get his facts right.”
The other two Red Rock councillors — Sara Park and Darquise Robinson — declined to be interviewed for this story.
Enter the Ombudsman
Martin filed a complaint over the trespass orders with the ombudsman. The ombudsman’s final report states, “ombudsman staff contacted the chief administrative officer at least seven times to address the issues raised by Mr. Martin. ... The chief administrative officer was uninterested in informal resolution and requested that our office commence a formal investigation.” On Nov. 3, 2016, the ombudsman’s office launched that formal investigation.
It was a rare step. The ombudsman has received more than 4,000 complaints since in January 2016 when it gained legislative authority to conduct such investigations, but the vast majority of those are settled without investigation. In fact, only four cases have reached the investigation stage.
The ombudsman’s preliminary and final reports sided with Martin, stating: “[My] investigation has confirmed that the township acted unreasonably, unjustly, and contrary to law.” The ombudsman condemned the process that led to the township’s serial trespass notices against Martin. The report advised the town to revise its anti-harassment policy, adopt codes of conduct for both staff and the public, and develop a formal trespass policy. It also recommended that the trespass order against Martin be rescinded.
In a meeting on May 18, the town rejected the advice in the ombudsman’s preliminary report. The Nipigon-Red Rock Gazette reported that councillors slammed the findings as “one-sided,” and they responded with seven pages of what they called “errors.”
The town complained that the ombudsman’s office’s interview of Gladun allegedly reduced her to tears.
Martin’s fellow councillors, meanwhile, renewed their demand that Martin issue an apology. He again refused, noting that the report did not call for him do so. Without that apology, the township refused to withdraw the trespass order against Martin. (It was allowed to expire in July.)
According to the ombudsman’s office, the town administration withheld its preliminary report from Martin and had the OPP remove him from the closed portion of the May 18 meeting. The ombudsman’s final report details the mayor declaring Martin to be in conflict of interest in discussing the preliminary report, and having ordered a local OPP officer to escort him out. The OPP confirms Staff Sgt. Carl Pettigrew did not file an incident report. Pettigrew contends the ombudsman’s office did not contact him to hear his version of events.
Ombudsman Paul Dubé described Red Rock’s response to that preliminary report as “wholly unsatisfactory.” Still, according to ombudsman spokesperson Linda Williamson, the township is not contravening any law, as the municipality has the autonomy to decide whether or not to accept the ombudsman’s recommendations.
“For more than 40 years, our office has always had a strong track record of recommendations being accepted and implemented,” she wrote in response to questions from tvo.org. “Mr. Dubé made more than 140 recommendations since he was appointed and all have been accepted; the Red Rock case is the only exception.”
No rules for Red Rock, only recommendations
Retired Western University political science professor Andrew Sancton says the Red Rock case is very rare in Ontario, but he notes a somewhat similar incident happened in Sarnia, where Mayor Mike Bradley has been accused of bullying and harassing staff members. The mayor’s office was relocated from city hall during the dispute. In that case, he points out, Sarnia city council followed its integrity commissioner’s recommendations.
In contrast, Red Rock did not follow the provincial ombudsman’s advice. Sancton describes Red Rock’s refusal to follow the ombudsman’s advice as “the most disturbing part of the whole thing.”
“Normally, in a small place, you’d think people should be able to work some of these things out a little more informally than in larger places,” Sancton says. “But precisely because it’s small, if something blows up, then if you don’t have the policies in place, and if you don’t have ways of dealing with [disputes], and if people are used to dealing with things in an ad hoc way, you’re going to have the ombudsman coming in.”
According to Sancton, when the Ontario ombudsman was given authority to oversee municipalities in 2016, it was meant to help local government deal with ethical administrative issues. The ombudsman’s municipal oversight was not designed for “the council and the senior management taking deliberate action against somebody,” Sancton says. Even if the ombudsman finds that a town is unfairly ganging up on someone, he explains, “There’s no authority to actually do anything. Only to make recommendations.”
Since the ombudsman’s report, Martin has remained effectively sidelined on council. He has submitted correspondence in writing, requesting amendments, corrections and additions to council agendas and minutes, including requests to present “unfinished business” in council meetings. Those requests have been dated with the municipal stamp well before meetings but none appear in subsequent agendas or minutes.
Ontario passed a new law on May 30, 2017, that will mandate municipal codes of conduct and establish local integrity commissioners to provide municipalities with advice on applying those codes. The Modernizing Ontario’s Municipal Legislation Act is designed to address concerns from elected officials and the public but it won’t take effect until March 1, 2019 — after this term of council is complete.
In the meantime, in order to have any hope of rejoining council as an active member, Martin says he would have to submit another complaint and wait on another investigation. But he sees no point in repeating the process.
“I just wanted my corner post back,” says a demoralized Martin. “I say to people, ‘Write a letter to council.’ People say, ‘I don’t want to do that. Look at what they did to you.’”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.
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