Ron Starr files injunction to block Council and public from seeing integrity commissioner findings on harassment allegations by Karen Ras
Councillor Ron Starr has filed an injunction to block Mississauga City Council from receiving an integrity commissioner report on allegations that he keyed the vehicle of former councillor Karen Ras.
If supported by the court, Robert Swayze’s investigation into the allegations would not be immediately brought forward to council, which, based on the commissioner’s findings, has ultimate authority in deciding how to punish anyone found to have violated the City’s Code of Conduct. The maximum punishment under the Municipal Act is a loss of 90 days’ pay, along with other sanctions such as being forced to step down from committees and having to issue a public apology.
The Pointer reached out to both Starr and Ras for comment, neither replied. Mayor Bonnie Crombie directed The Pointer’s inquiries to the City’s solicitor.
Former councillor Karen Ras alleged Ron Starr keyed her car.
(The Pointer file photo)
At the 11th hour of Mississauga’s General Committee meeting Wednesday an in-camera item was added verbally to the closed session portion which usually takes place at the end of the meeting, and is done behind closed doors. The item was not on the posted written agenda, so the public was not aware of it.
“Verbal update regarding correspondence from Biscaglia & Associates dated May 31 2022, regarding a potential injunction to restrain council from receiving the report of the integrity commissioner,” Chair Pat Saito read aloud, explaining the item that was added.
Because the matter was then dealt with in a closed door in camera session no details about why Starr filed the injunction are available.
Starr, who was present for the public part of the meeting, declared a conflict of interest prior to the closed session and did not participate in discussions around the matter.
Starr was supposed to receive the integrity commissioner’s report in advance of it being made public, a common practice to ensure the individual being investigated has an opportunity to respond to any aspect of the report that he or she does not agree with, and possibly have the report amended.
One common problem with the Municipal Act is that it allows council members to ultimately decide the fate of a colleague, opening the door to politicization of the process.
Crombie and others could feel public pressure to punish Starr, as Ras suggested in a letter and statements to the media when she stepped down from her councillor position earlier in the year that she felt unsupported by some of her colleagues.
Injunctions to stop the release of integrity commissioner reports have been used before, for example in Niagara Region, in Hawkesbury and in other municipalities.
A criticism of the current integrity commissioner system is that even if there is insufficient evidence against someone accused of violating a municipal code of conduct, the commissioner can still open the door to punishment by taking a neutral stance, allowing council members to then decide the fate of a colleague, raising concern that members could use the process unfairly against someone. Another criticism is that even without a recommendation from a commissioner in their report, council members can still take punitive action even if it’s unwarranted.
An injunction is one of the only legal options to ensure an investigation report does not lead to the unfair treatment of a council member. A member can face a decision by council not supported by the evidence in the case.
Starr has not stated he harassed Ras and Crombie earlier suggested his position is that he is innocent. Peel police investigated the allegations and did not move forward with charges, stating there was no evidence that identified who vandalized Ras’s vehicle in a City Hall parking lot. She said it was keyed multiple times during the council term.
Council asked Swayze to conduct an investigation into the allegations that Starr keyed Ras’s Kia Sportage. The former councillor said between mid 2019 and April 2021, her vehicle was vandalized eight times in the City Hall parking lot. On April 13, 2021 a newly installed security camera recorded a man using keys to gouge two scratches across the vehicle, she alleged. TorStar reported Ras identified Councillor Starr as the person who vandalized her car. It is unclear if Starr is identified in the video or if it shows him actually doing damage to the car. Police likely would have laid charges if there was evidence to support them.
However, there is a big distinction between a criminal offense and a code of conduct violation. An individual can be found in violation of the code, for example, if harassment is committed, even though it doesn’t rise to criminality.
On February 2 Council told Swayze to conduct an investigation which the commissioner said would take “weeks not months” to complete. April 21 Swayze made another appearance at Council explaining new allegations and evidence had prolonged his work.
The allegations have piqued the public’s interest. Councillors said many residents are inquiring about the investigation and want clarity on the situation.
According to Andra Maxwell, Mississauga's solicitor and director of legal services, Starr filed the injunction application with the Brampton Divisional Court against the City of Mississauga and Swayze. The injunction he is seeking would prohibit the integrity commissioner from delivering the version of the report Starr received to Council. He is also seeking an order from the court to revoke Council’s February 2 decision when they ordered Swayze to investigate. The injunction request asks that Council be prevented from receiving, debating and voting on the current report’s findings.
Ron Starr, middle, has not said that he harassed Karen Ras.
(The Pointer file photo)
Maxwell added in an email to The Pointer, that Council is not allowed to receive or act on the report between August 19 and October 24 due to a “blackout period” for the municipal election in October.
“The Councillor is also asking the court to make a sealing order which would mean the documents in the court file would not be publicly available and the public would be excluded from any oral hearings before the court,” the City solicitor explained.
After Peel Police did not lay charges, in late September 2021 Ras turned to Swayze, but the integrity commissioner incorrectly claimed he was prevented from investigating once police had been involved, according to the Municipal Act.
According to Section 223.8, a commissioner is to suspend an investigation if criminality might be involved.
“The Commissioner shall immediately refer the matter to the appropriate authorities and suspend the inquiry until any resulting police investigation and charge have been finally disposed of…”, the Municipal Act states.
The Act does not prohibit the commissioner from resuming the investigation once police are done, even if charges were laid.
Council has since amended its own bylaw on possible Code of Conduct violations to indicate that after police conclude investigations the integrity commissioner “shall resume their inquiry and report to Council.”
Councillor Pat Saito’s motion changing the wording also added to Part B of the City’s Code of Conduct, with new requirements for the integrity commissioner to report to Council “quarterly” not “annually” with any complaints deemed not within their jurisdiction.
Maxwell said she will provide City Council with her own legal opinion this coming Wednesday regarding Starr’s injunction request.
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