Voakes discusses second Integrity Commissioner’s report before Council meeting

Filed under: As it happens,Headline |

by Sylene Argent

Last Thursday afternoon, Councillor Randy Voakes held a press conference in the front yard of the Essex Municipal Building to talk about the second report from Integrity Commissioner Robert Swayze that would go before Council the following Tuesday, September 5.

He hoped the event would bring, “Some clarity to the outstanding political issues that resulted in complaints being filed against me.”

In his report, Swayze noted he received complaints from Mayor Ron McDermott, Deputy Mayor Richard Meloche, and Councillors Sherry Bondy, Steve Bjorkman, and Larry Snively against Councillor Voakes. They alleged contravention of the “Code of Conduct for Members of Council and claimed “aggressive and bullying” behaviour towards members of Council and staff, the report states.

The first report from Swayze was handled in August of 2016. He had recommended Voakes be suspended from Council remuneration for one month after receiving complaints. Voakes asked that money go to a charity, and donated an additional month’s remuneration. Four of the six complaints filed in 2016 were against Voakes, and Swayze found merit in two of the complaints from Town staff at that time.

During Thursday’s press conference, Voakes sees his work as, “Good, stern representation” for his constituents.

He had a few concerns of the Integrity Commissioner’s report that was to be discussed at the Tuesday, September 5 Council meeting.

The first was in regards to the Essex Rocks and Rolls Car and Motorcycle Cruise In. In April, Voakes asked Council for additional money for the show as he felt the Finance Committee did not present enough. The show was awarded $2300 through tourism/community partnership grant funding, but it was requested at the meeting that figure be bumped to $3900. It was said then additional funding was needed for the second annual event to grow it.

At that time, Deputy Mayor Richard Meloche, who is also the Chairperson of the Finance Committee, said the Finance Committee does not agreed to pay for the entire cost of an event, but rather partners with organizers.

Swayze’s report notes Councillor Voakes argued for additional funding and left the chamber “In an obviously distressed state following the delegation of volunteers supporting the show. He returned, silently staring at individual members of Council in a menacing manner.”

Voakes claimed he tried to find the instance on the meeting’s recording and does not remember doing that. He wondered if that was a complaint of merit.
His second concern had to do with the dismissal of former CAO Tracey Pillon-Abbs. He thought she was doing a phenomenal job. He said no one was saying what her dismissal was costing taxpayers. He was given a total in camera. “It was a phenomenal amount,” he said.

In his Letter to the Editor in the Essex Free Press, published June 29, Swayze’s report noted Voakes complained about the total cost of a list of Council decisions, which included the severance paid to the CAO. “It is possible to calculate the approximate cost of the termination by deducting the total cost of the other decisions on the list which are in the public realm,” the report states.

Voakes said he had told Council it was imperative for taxpayers to know that amount.

“They didn’t like the way I was doing my business. I don’t sugar-coat stuff,” he said.

Swayze’s report noted several closed meetings were held regarding the dismissal of the former CAO, which Voakes did not attend.

“On the eve of her dismissal, when a labour lawyer was in attendance at the final closed meeting on the subject, Councillor Voakes opposed the decision violently. He walked out of the meeting, revved the motor of his car in the parking lot and raised his middle finger in the sight of some members of Council, as he drove away,” the report claims.

Shortly after his Letter to the Editor, at the July 10 regular Council meeting, Council removed Voakes from the Committee of Adjustment for having missed three consecutive meetings, as can be done through policy. Voakes claimed that is until they find out the reason. “They didn’t do that,” he said, claiming two of the meetings were missed due to diabetic concerns and another was a scheduling conflict.

He was absent from this regular Council meeting, and did send notice of his absence to the Town. He said he has talked with a lawyer on the removal issue and though he claims the advice he received from his lawyer said he has reasonable strong case to sue Council and the Town, he claimed his lawyer said it is discrimination. He is not going to because the taxpayers would have to pick up the bill.

“They shouldn’t have to bear the sword for ill-fated decisions,” he said.

The third complaint highlighted was in regards to Councillor Bondy’s request to sit apart from Councillor Voakes, “Because she feels distracted and intimidated by his comments to her during Council meetings.”

Bondy said it was her request to move because she needs to run council business free of intimidation and distraction. “I need to make best possible decisions not under influences of others…At time it hasn’t felt like that,” she said.

In the analysis portion of the report, Swayze wrote, “When he takes a position on an issue, he will not accept that a majority of Council makes the final decision and not him. His reaction to rejection of his position on an issue is aggressive and often frightening to members of Council and staff. Staff working late have begun locking the doors of the Town Hall after 5:00 pm for fear that he might attend without the protection of numbers. In my opinion, his behaviour is severely impacting Council doing its business. None of the five complainants and no member of staff should be required to put up with his harassment, bullying, and vulgar language. I have no power to order that he take anger management training, but I strongly recommend it to him.”

Voakes said he asked Council to get a different Integrity Commissioner brought in. He said he may file a discrimination charge against Swayze for what Voakes claimed was a comment made to him by the Integrity Commissioner during a phone conversation.

Voakes claimed Council has a goal, “To make me look bad.”

Going into Tuesday’s meeting, Voakes said Council still has an opportunity to receive and file the recommendations. He will not be OK if Council accepts the recommendations in Swayze’s report, which suggests two months remuneration be suspended from Voakes. “Because they are all going to look at one another and they know in their heart-of-hearts that all those charges they agreed to put against me are not valid.”

If that happens, said he would defend himself, but he doesn’t want to defend himself. “I want to work for the constituents for the Town of Essex.”

His guess is that to bring the Integrity Commissioner in the second time will cost around $50,000, adding it cost taxpayers last time almost $30,000.

“When we wake up Wednesday morning, where is this going to get us?” Voakes asked. “Is it going to improve things?

“It’s not going to change me. If you think I was strong before, you haven’t seen anything yet.”

Leading into the Tuesdays meeting, Councillor Steve Bjorkman said he hopes people will reserve their judgement on Council until after the Integrity Commissioner’s report is dealt with at the Council meeting.

Please note, the Tuesday, September 5 Council meeting took place after this week’s publication of the Essex Free Press. The results of the Council meeting will be published in next week’s edition.