Tay Valley — a township divided
With only days to go before the electronic polls open in Tay Valley, the rural municipality has posted an integrity commissioner’s findings on complaints against one of its sitting councillors, who is now running for the position of deputy reeve.
The commissioner’s report recommended that Judy Farrell, just completing her first term in office, be sanctioned 45 days’ pay. Council has supported that recommendation.
More about that later.
The real question for now could well be how a simmering controversy in a picturesque township west of Perth — consisting of about a dozen hamlets scattered over 550 square kilometres — could be absorbing so much space on the internet. Not to mention racking up $200,000 in legal fees, and counting.
Farrell, who runs a beef farm and maple syrup operation with her husband while driving a school bus on the side, has been at the centre of this saga, now into its second year.
She has been critical of Tay Valley’s building approval and inspection processes, saying they have had a dampening effect on development. Farrell has referred to her own experience of having her home built, describing a dispute over whether nails or screws should be used on a small portion of a new deck.
In June 2017, delegations appeared before councillors to talk about the issue. Among them was area MPP Randy Hillier, who has also been critical of the building processes, and Farrell’s brother, a representative from the building community.
That month, municipal staff members made allegations of harassment against Hillier and Farrell. Two staff members went on stress leave.
In January, an outside investigator was brought in. They found staff had indeed been harassed. Farrell was asked to apologize, but refused and was barred from the township’s offices, except for council meetings.
Farrell defended her actions, maintaining that her obligations are to taxpayers first. “Everything I have done was in a public council meeting. How can you call that harassment?”
The various twists and turns have entrenched many in Tay Valley in either the pro-Farrell or anti-Farrell camp.
Susan Freeman, who was on council before bowing out in 2014, is running again, this time for reeve. The past 18 months have been “tumultuous,” she says. Everywhere she campaigns, people want to know where she stands when it comes to Farrell. She says she’s been directing them to the integrity commissioner’s report.
“It really has polarized the council and the community. It’s unprecedented in terms of a small rural community,” Freeman says. “Some people have said, ‘Poor Judy.’ Others have been very sympathetic to the staff and feel harassment in the workplace is wrong and should not be tolerated.”
Then this week, the maelstrom kicked up anew.
An integrity commissioner’s report was released and posted on Tay Valley’s website following a special meeting of council on Sept. 9.
Keith Kerr, who has been reeve of Tay Valley since 2003 and who is running again, says the integrity commissioner’s report was requested by four or five unnamed taxpayers. The municipality engaged John Ewart, a Peterborough lawyer and specialist in municipal law.
While Farrell’s name is not mentioned in the report, she is named on Tay Valley’s website, and she has identified herself as the subject of the report.
The report is based on an investigation into events and incidents between Nov. 3, 2017, and April 3, 2018. It concludes that Farrell contravened the code of conduct when she refused to leave a closed session of council on Dec. 4, 2017. The subject of the session was a formal investigation under the municipality ’s respect in the workplace policy and the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
Farrell had no understanding as to the nature of the conflict of interest in matters to be discussed on that day, the report says, which Ewart found concerning.
“While a member of council can claim a lack of understanding of the meaning of conflict of interest and the Code of Conduct rules regarding councillor’s obligations pursuant to the code of conduct, it is unacceptable for such a position to be held by a member of council in what would be the third year of the municipal term of council.”
The report also came out against Farrell in the matter of an email dated March 8. Ewart said it was “difficult to explain” how Farrell came into possession of an email one minute earlier than the identical email without the word “confidential” on it, but he found that disclosing the email and failing to admit to this until about a month later fell short of the standards of the code of conduct.
Ewart also looked into an allegation that Farrell contravened the code of conduct when she participated in a radio interview on Jan. 29, 2018. While Farrell had signed a non-disclosure agreement and had been cautioned to keep the findings confidential, she spoke about matters which had not been disclosed during the investigation, and it was her right to do so, he found.
The report is being viewed as controversial not just because of its contents. The timing of the decision to post it has also been raised as an issue. Electronic polls in Tay Valley open Monday.
“They are trying to turn the votes against me,” Farrell says. “But I’m getting a lot of support.”
Hillier is squarely in Farrell’s corner.
The MPP has 13 municipalities in his riding of Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston and says the complaints he gets about Tay Valley, particularly around planning and development, are completely out of proportion to its population of about 6,000 permanent residents and a few thousand cottagers. There are fewer houses in Tay Valley now than there were a decade ago, Hillier says.
He has published his own list of preferred candidates on his Facebook page, a list that includes Farrell.
“This is a very unique situation for myself,” he says. “It’s the first time I’ve been so engaged in a municipal election.”
Also supporting Farrell is the Blueberry Creek Forest School and Nature Centre, which is run by Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston MP Scott Reid’s wife, Robyn Mulcahy.
Blueberry Creek has been in a battle with Tay Valley over its commercial zoning bylaw. In ads, Blueberry Creek alleges that Tay Valley has engaged in hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of litigation against its own residents and is threatening more.
“Please vote for people who aren’t threatening to litigate against us,” summarizes Reid, who describes the situation as “Kafka illustrated by Dr. Seuss.”
Kerr, the current reeve, says he believes these actions amount to political interference.
Hillier disagrees. Municipalities and the province have an intertwined relationship and when he get complaints about municipal responses to constituents’ problems, he has a duty and an obligation to step in, he says. Reid says a friend volunteered to produce the third-party advertisement for Blueberry Creek.
Farrell, for her part, says she didn’t even know that the township had hired an integrity commissioner until she got a letter from Ewart. She estimates that her personal legal fees have added up to about $30,000 since June 2017. As a councillor, she’s paid about $1,000 a month.
“I am using my own money. Taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for it,” she says
If that matter had been handled properly in the first place, nobody would have had to spend so much on legal fees, Farrell maintains.
“We would have resolved it in August 2017. It has gotten out of hand,” she says. “We need a council to work together as a team and staff that works for us.”
Says Kerr: “I have been on council for a long time, and I’ve never had a problem until Coun. Farrell was elected.”
According to Kerr’s calculations, the township will have spent $300,000 in legal fees since Farrell was first accused of harassing staff in June 2017, including Ewart’s report. Typically, the township budgets $50,000 a year for legal costs and never comes to close to spending that amount, he says.
“I don’t think we can afford her for another term.”
Are Tay Valley’s woes all about Judy Farrell? Hillier doesn’t think so. “This predates Judy. This has been going on for some time.”
Tay Valley councillor Judy Farrell sits surrounded by paperwork regarding complaints that she harassed municipal staff members. An integrity commissioner’s report, which said Farrell contravened the code of conduct, was released on the eve of the municipal election.
Tory MPP Randy Hillier agrees with controversial Tay Valley councillor Judy Farrell, saying the municipality’s problems date back to before she was elected.