The mayor of Pembroke, Ont., has been cleared by the city's integrity commissioner following an investigation into whether his employment with a law firm hired by the municipality breaches its code of conduct.
The investigation was launched in April 2023 following a complaint by Pembroke resident Arianna Nolet, who questioned the objectivity and impartiality of Mayor Ron Gervais.
The city's 21-year-old contract for legal services is with lawyer Robert Sheppard of the Pembroke firm Sheppard & Gervais, where Gervais is currently employed.
It is important to appreciate that the simple fact that the mayor is employed by the law firm does not in and of itself create a conflict. - Pembroke integrity commissioner Tony Fleming
In December 2022, Nolet contacted the mayor to complain that city plows were "dumping the entire street of snow" onto her property. Gervais indicated "he would look into it," according to the commissioner's report.
Following a second call to the mayor a month later, Nolet received a letter in February 2023 from the law firm Sheppard & Gervais, signed by Sheppard.
The letter referred to Nolet's initial conversation with Gervais and accused Nolet of breaking a city bylaw by pushing snow onto the street.
In her complaint to the integrity commissioner, Nolet asked if the mayor's employment with the firm represented a conflict of interest.
No conflict under city's code of conduct
Speaking to council via videoconference on Tuesday evening, integrity commissioner Tony Fleming said the mayor told Nolet back in January that he would forward her concerns about snow removal to staff for them to address.
"That was the last that the mayor dealt with it," Fleming said. "The complainant then received a letter from the municipality solicitor and the issue was whether there was a conflict of interest created because of the interaction, as well as the mayor's employment with the law firm."
Fleming made it clear Tuesday evening that Gervais did not contravene the city's code of conduct in regards to Nolet's complaint.
"We did not find that there was any conflict of interest with respect to the specific facts, and we found that the mayor dealt with the matter appropriately in the circumstances," Fleming said.
"Staff dealt with the complaint in their internal processes and the mayor had no decision making or interaction with Ron Sheppard when the advice was given and letters written," he added.
Complaint came too late for broader investigation
Tuesday's report marks the second time in recent history Fleming investigated a member of Pembroke council.
In November, the integrity commissioner presented his recommendations against Coun. Troy Purcell, saying he deserved a 15-day pay suspension and recommended he issue a public apology after finding him "disrespectful" when Purcell called for more procedural transparency and accountability from council and staff.
Last year, amid some public backlash, Gervais had asked Fleming for advice on whether he breached the code of conduct, after questions arose about the mayor's purchase of a piece of city land. Fleming said in a letter that he didn't believe Gervais's actions contravened the code.
While the integrity commissioner concluded that the mayor did not breach the city's code of conduct in this most recent case, his report notes that he did not investigate whether the matter contravened Ontario's Municipal Conflict of Interest Act (MCIA).
That's because complaints against the MCIA must be submitted within six weeks of the complainant becoming aware of an alleged contravention. In this case, the time between Nolet's receipt of the letter from the law firm and the date of her complaint to Fleming spanned more than eight weeks.
In speaking to council Tuesday, Fleming also addressed the mayor's employment by the same firm the city hires as its solicitor.
"It is important to appreciate that the simple fact that the mayor is employed by the law firm does not in and of itself create a conflict," Fleming said.
"It creates the potential for conflicts of interest, and where those conflicts of interest arise the mayor has a personal obligation to address those potential conflicts in accordance with the municipal conflict of interest and the code of conduct."
In late December, Pembroke city council decided against revisiting the city's existing contract with Shepperd and Gervais.
Arianna Nolet holds up a letter from Sheppard & Gervais dated Feb. 2, 2023. The Pembroke resident filed a complaint with the city's integrity commissioner asking him to investigate the mayor's relationship with the law firm. (Buntola Nou/CBC)
Complainant says she'll appeal to ombudsman
Reached for her reaction Wednesday, Nolet told CBC she didn't have high hopes the investigation would end in her favour.
"I'm not surprised since it actually confirms and reiterates the larger problem that we are facing here in Pembroke, which is a severe breakdown of transparency between residents and our official local governments," Nolet said.
She said she'll continue to pursue the matter of the mayor's employment at a firm that's under contract with the municipality.
"It does not end here," Nolet vowed. "I feel very strongly about bringing to light the lack of transparency by the council, as well as the mayor."
Nolet said she's already requested that Ontario's ombudsman review Fleming's findings, and has reached out to her MPP, John Yakabuski, asking his office to review the situation.