Ottawa council reprimands Harder amid integrity probe, Barrhaven councillor resigns planning chair role

Barrhaven Coun. Jan Harder has resigned from Ottawa’s planning committee in light of an integrity commissioner report that found she had “tainted” the city’s development process.

But a number of recommendations from Integrity Commissioner Robert Marleau were not adopted by city council Wednesday as some councillors and community groups question the level of developer influence at City Hall.

Harder said Wednesday that she had been subject to “hyper-aggressive” attacks online in light of Marleau’s report released on Friday, which found the councillor had violated city council’s code of conduct for mishandling her relationship with the Stirling Group, a developer consultancy.

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This included her long-term friendship with development executive Jack Stirling and her office’s employment of his daughter, Alison Clarke.

Among the concerns raised in the investigation were Stirling’s appearances at planning committee on behalf of developer clients while the Stirling Group was under contract to Harder’s office for consultancy work.

Though he did not find evidence of a pecuniary conflict of interest, Marleau said that Harder’s actions and connection with Stirling Group represented an “apparent conflict of interest’ and “tainted” the city’s planning and development process.

The appearance of the conflict and Harder’s decision not to take opportunities to disclose it were a problem, Marleau said in response to councillors’ questions on Wednesday.

He said council should remove Harder from the planning committee and other associated roles at City Hall — a move the veteran councillor took herself before debate began on the matter Wednesday.

Harder maintained she had not violated the code of conduct and reiterated her assertion that the investigation was spurred by a politically motivated attack.

She said in her comments at council that she would step down to prevent the “endless noise and innuendo amplified online” to interfere with the “important work” of Ottawa’s planning committee.

Harder did apologize for the “division” her actions had caused at council.

She acknowledged that a review of the city’s hiring practices was warranted in light of the integrity commissioner’s findings — another of the suggestions laid out in the report.

Mayor Jim Watson put forward a replacement motion on Wednesday that removed a number of Marleau’s other recommendations, including docking Harder 15 days’ pay, ordering her to reimburse the city for legal fees related to her defence in the integrity probe and amending council’s gift registry to account for unpaid services received from the Stirling Group.

His motion also stripped away a call for council to reprimand Harder’s actions, but that recommendation was ultimately readded via friendly amendment from Kanata North Coun. Jenna Sudds.

Watson’s motion passed with 14 members of council in favour, nine opposed.

The mayor, who said little directly on the matter at council itself, told reporters after the meeting adjourned that he did not ask Harder to step down but supported her decision to do so.

He did not answer directly when asked whether he personally thought Harder violated the code of conduct.

Before Sudds’ motion, which sought to formally recognize the violations in Harder’s conduct, numerous councillors spoke in outrage at the idea that council would not honour the integrity commissioner’s findings.

Councillors Diane Deans and Catherine McKenney both said there is a double standard at city council, wherein allies of the mayor do not pay the price for breaking the rules.

“It is so obvious that there are two sets of rules in this city,” McKenney said, highlighting the recent instance of council probing the source of a leaked memo but dropping the matter when Beacon Hill-Cyrville Coun. Tim Tierney came forward to confess his mistake.

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Responding to charges there’s a “Watson club” after Wednesday’s meeting, the mayor said he respects individual councillors’ decisions to dissent with him on matters at council.

Capital Coun. Shawn Menard also passed a motion at council seeking a governance review of the city’s lobbying bylaw to stop what he called a “revolving door” of public servants and developers employed at City Hall.

Gloucester-South Nepean Coun. Carol Anne Meehan, who said she was “disturbed” by Marleau’s report, put forward a motion to review all decisions at council where the Stirling Group had a hand in a planning file. Watson ruled the motion out of order, deferring to the provincial Local Planning and Appeals Tribunal for such matters.

Community groups, a number of which held a joint press conference calling for Harder’s resignation before council met on Wednesday, have railed against the city’s planning and campaign processes since the integrity commissioner’s report was released on Friday, citing it as proof of undue developer influence at City Hall.

Robb Barnes of Ecology Ottawa said that the group has spent “tremendous energy” engaging with the city and constituents on consultations for the new Official Plan, but he said he worries that any goodwill built in the past year of advocacy could be undone by council’s attitudes towards the report.

“How can we go back to our community and tell them that this process remains legitimate?”

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Watson defended Ottawa’s planning process in the press conference, pointing to an argument made by Rideau-​Goulbourn Coun. Scott Moffatt showing that planning committee has only differed from staff’s recommendations in a handful of instances.

When it comes to political interference, Watson said council is bound in a “straitjacket.” He argued that provincial legislation and other “fulsome checks and balances” limit the ability for developers, outside actors or any one single member of a committee — even a chair or the mayor — to influence planning decisions.

Watson meanwhile lauded Harder’s work for nearly two decades in municipal politics and her seven years served as planning committee chair.

He thanked her for “shepherding” work on Ottawa’s new Official Plan, a draft of which is due for council’s approval this coming fall. He said that whoever fills Harder’s role as planning committee’s new chair will have to “hit the ground running,” but offered no suggestions for who her replacement should be.

Councillors will have the opportunity to submit their expressions of interest to become the planning committee chair to a nominating committee in the weeks to come.

Vice-chair Glen Gower will run Thursday’s planning committee meeting.

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