Voakes suspended two months’ Council pay

Filed under: Headline,IN THE NEWS |

by Sylene Argent

A recess had to be taken, police were called to safely escort Integrity Commissioner Robert Swayze to his vehicle, and a displeased crowed exited the Council Chambers in a huff after a majority Council vote suspended Councillor Randy Voakes from two months’ remuneration.

This was a result of the remaining Council members moving the recommendation Integrity Commissioner, Robert Swayze tabled during the regular meeting held on Tuesday, September 5.

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 was used towards members of Council and staff, the report states.
Swayze, who said he serves as an Integrity Commissioner for around 20 municipalities, noted the Town’s Code of Conduct states Council members will treat each other and others with respect at all times, which includes not using derogatory language, respecting the rights of others, and treating others with courtesy.

He said each municipality he serves has a similar section in their own code, “I do not enforce it strictly. Any Councillor is entitled to [his or her] opinion. Any Councillor is entitled to vigorously debate, argue about their own opinion.

“On the other hand, once Council makes a decision, the vote is taken, each Councillor must accept it,” Swayze commented.

Receiving the five complaints against Voakes from the other members of Council, he said, is very serious. “It means that he has alienated all of you. There is no one sitting on the fence. Everyone wants Councillor Voakes to stop what he is doing.

“He loses his temper. He storms out of meetings. He uses vulgar language…this is serious. I’m concerned the business of Council is not being taken care of the way it should be and it is because of Councillor Voakes,” he said.

Deputy Mayor Richard Meloche made the motion to receive the report and follow through with the recommendations. Councillor Steve Bjorkman seconded. After the vote, Essex Mayor Ron McDermott noted no other members of Council were opposed.

After the vote, Voakes said he had a couple questions for the Integrity Commissioner.

Bjorkman called a Point of Order as he said the issue had been dealt with.

McDermott agreed with Bjorkman. He said he had asked if there was to be any discussion before the vote.

Voakes insisted on asking the Integrity Commissioner if he could appeal the decision, McDermott gave Voakes his first warning.

The two debated for a moment before the Mayor called a recess.

Later correspondence with the Integrity Commissioner noted Voakes could not appeal.

Many members of the gallery followed Voakes into the space outside the Council Chambers at the Essex County Civic Centre. Some yelling that Voakes was set up, that what had just transpired was “disgraceful,” accused Council of not allowing Voakes an opportunity to defend himself, one even suggested, “Voakes for Mayor.”

During the recess, Voakes spoke to supporters and the media. He thanked everyone for their support.

“I can’t thank you enough. I don’t even know where to start,” he said, adding he didn’t think what happened in the Council Chambers was justly fair. “I probably would have been more comfortable with it if they allowed me to speak. They took my voice away from me, but they are not going to take my voice away from representing people. As a matter of fact, they have empowered me even more.”

Voakes said Essex is a great place, but, “It will be a better place with better leadership.”

As far as the report goes, Voakes said he doesn’t hold anything against the Integrity Commissioner, “Because the tools he had to work with are the tools Council gave him, and they gave him deceit and they gave him lies,” he claimed.

Police were called in to escort Swayze from the building.

Voakes estimates the hit to him as a result of the remuneration suspension will be around $4,000.

Upon returning from recess, Mayor McDermott said he had removed Voakes from the meeting, but Council would vote if he could stay or not if he apologized. Voakes left the meeting.

The prior Thursday, Voakes held a press conference in the front lawn of the Essex Municipal Building to discuss the Integrity Commissioner’s report.

The first concern highlighted in the Integrity Commissioner’s report 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 he claims the advice he received from his lawyer said he has reasonably strong case to sue Council and the Town as 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 during his press conference prior to the Council meeting.
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.”

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.”

During his press conference held on Thursday, August 31, Voakes said he asked Council to get a different Integrity Commissioner brought in. He said he may file a discrimination charge against Swayze. Voakes claimed Swayze commented why would Voakes sit on committees if he had diabetic concerns. Swayze later denied making the comment to the Essex Free Press.

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

Voakes’s guess is that to bring the Integrity Commissioner in the second time will cost around $40,000, adding it cost taxpayers last time almost $30,000.

This is the second time Voakes was reprimanded in this manner. In August of 2016, Voakes was suspended from Council remuneration for one month after the Integrity Commissioner received 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.