Councillors can’t discuss Fire Chief’s dismissal

By David Judd

PROVINCIAL law prevents Mayor Charlie Luke and Coun. John Wells from talking about the firing of former Port Dover Fire Chief Gary Spragg.
The two veteran politicians were totally frustrated last week as they came under pressure to explain — and perhaps do something about — the chief’s sudden firing at a meeting with CAO David Cribbs on Sept. 4.
But both men’s hands were tied by a provincial law that forbids Norfolk councillors from any involvement in hiring or firing county employees during the run up to the Oct. 22 municipal election.
Mayor Luke last week kept handy in his office a paperback copy of the Ontario Municipal Act to show why he could not comment on Chief Spragg’s firing.
“People ask me to set the record straight and I can’t. I could end up in court,” the mayor told reporters during a break at last Tuesday’s council meeting.
Coun. Wells had hoped to raise Chief Spragg’s firing during the meeting’s closed-door session.
But the Port Dover councillor was not allowed to raise the issue.
“I am just disappointed,” he said after the meeting.
“If we can’t talk about it, how can we find a compromise?”
Coun. Wells said many people think county councillors have lots of power to make decisions.
In reality, councillors must follow rules set by the Ontario government.
Section 275 of the Municipal Act limits council’s powers if less than three-quarters of current members will not return for the 2018-2022 term.
The goal is to prevent councils from making erratic decisions during a period when a good number of them are ending their time in office.
Three of Norfolk’s nine members — Port Rowan Coun. Noel Haydt, Charlotteville Coun. Jim Oliver and Waterford Coun. Harold Sonnenberg — are not seeking re-election.
So county council is officially a “lame duck” until councillors elected on Oct. 22 take their seats in December.
During this period, the mayor and councillors cannot be involved in any staff hiring or firing.
(There are other restrictions too on selling assets or spending more than $50,000 on items not already in council’s budget.)
So right now it’s clear the mayor and councillors cannot talk about hiring or firing county employees such as a fire chief.
What happens after the lame duck period?
Will the mayor and councillors elected to the new term of council in December be able to talk about Chief Spragg’s firing?
County Clerk Andy Grozelle in an e-mail to The Maple Leaf expressed doubt that would happen.
“Councils usually don’t have much direct involvement in individual employee matters,” Mr. Grozelle wrote.
“They usually would consider things like overall staffing levels, division restructuring, collective agreements but not get involved in individual employees, say perhaps below the general manager level.
“This is because council is the executive or policy development side of the corporation.
“So the CAO is council’s only real direct employee and (he) works, as the title denotes, to oversee all administration and effectively implement council’s directions and policies.”
Petitions asking council to reinstate Chief Spragg have gathered signatures in Port Dover.
Would council receive the petitions or hear a deputation from the chief’s supporters?
The answer is no.
County Clerk Grozelle in his e-mail said he had not been contacted by anyone wishing to present the petitions to council or to speak to council in support of Chief Spragg.
But council’s procedural bylaw prevents council from hearing from the public respecting labour relations or employee matters.
Council is not a venue for discussion of personal matters about individuals, Mr. Grozelle said.

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