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Four councillors face conflict charges

13/04/15 — Four town councillors were in conflict of interest when they authorized the Town of Fort Erie to pay former director of legal services Heather Salter $50,000 to prevent her from suing them, according to documents filed in court late last week.

The payment was made on top of a severance package worth 18 months’ salary (approximately $190,000) plus benefits, pension contributions, vacation pay, professional association dues, legal costs and other expenses — following her termination last April.

The information came to light Monday night when councillors John Hill, Bob Steckley, Paul Collard and Don Lubberts were served notice prior to the start of a council meeting that they are accused of violating conflict of interest law.

The claim was filed with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice by former town councillor Tim Whitfield and includes affidavits by Mayor Doug Martin, and councillors Stephen Passero and Rick Shular.

If a judge agrees with the claim, the four respondents will be removed from council. They may also be disqualified from elections for up to seven years.

According to the documents prepared by Fort Erie lawyer David Hurren, Martin kick-started the claim when he asked Whitfield early last week if he “was interested in becoming involved in a legal matter of some significance concerning the activities of Town council.”

Martin told Whitfield what had happened during some closed session meetings last year and Whitfield followed up with the claim.

The affidavits from Martin, Passero and Shular state that the four respondents used their majority position on council to fire Salter instead of investigating her harassment claims against them personally, and to use Town funds to pay Salter $50,000 to relinquish her claims against them.

The four respondents had a direct pecuniary interest in the matter and did not disqualify themselves as the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act requires, the affidavits state.

Martin said he had no other option than to divulge information from the closed meetings to Whitfield because the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing refused to investigate.

He had sent a letter to the minister, Linda Jeffrey, in March complaining of unethical behaviour of the four councillors in closed door meetings.

The suggestion from the minister was to take it up with the Ombudsman, Martin said Tuesday morning.

“I tried every bit of legislation available without assistance and this was the last available resource. The public has the right to be informed where and how their tax dollars are spent,” he said.

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