David Kircher resigns town councilLouis Bergeron, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Fort Frances Councillor David Kircher has resigned his seat at the council table, following an integrity Commissioner report criticizing his actions.

At Monday night’s regular council meeting, integrity commissioner David G. Boghosian gave a verbal synopsis of his report. He had been directed to investigate claims against Kircher by Mayor Andrew Hallikas, who was acting on behalf of the majority of Council.

Kircher exited the meeting before council had voted on recommended sanctions against him; he was followed by a number of supporters present in the gallery.

“I am very disappointed with the integrity commissioners report. I strongly disagree with his findings and his recommendations,” Kircher said prior to his departure. “Everything that I’ve done and for which I’ve been criticized, is motivated by my concerns for the town and my desire to ensure that council is always acting in the best interest of the town and its citizens.”

He will be assessing his next steps, which may or may not include legal action.

After he exited the chamber, the remaining councillors voted to approve the commissioners recommended sanctions of: a cumulative 55 day suspension of pay: a formal reprimand: a request for a public apology to Counc. John McTaggart and: a workplace facilitator be appointed to better relations between Kircher and McTaggart, and possibly between all of council.

Coun. Wendy Brunetta suggested that the final reprimand be set aside for the time being, until Council deemed it appropriate, which was approved.

As part of the investigation, Boghosian accessed dozens of e-mails between Kircher and council and staff, and conducted interviews with Kircher, McTaggart and Hallikas, along with several town staff.

“I ended up making a number of findings of misconduct based on those reviews,” said Boghosian.

The commissioner felt that Kircher had violated several council conventions. He indicated that Kircher had sent confidential emails to his private business accounts from his counselor email account.

Although there was no indication that the e-mails were shared further, “it’s a practice that creates the appearance of potential breach of confidentiality,” said Boghosian. “He would forward confidential documents that were provided to him for closed meeting purposes.”

Kircher was found to have attempted to conduct council business through e-mail, and had directed town staff to “do things without the sanction of council,” said Boghosian.

He had also suggested an alteration to a decision by the Committee of Adjustments. “It may not seem like a big deal but it actually is a quite a big deal,” said Boghosian.

Kircher also attempted to direct staff on numerous occasions to obtain information, by skipping proper procedures.

His pay was suspended for 10 days for his efforts to harass city staff members and “eliciting information of staff through improper channels”, said Boghosian. He was given a reprimand for his misuse of confidential emails. Kircher received a further five-day suspension of pay for his attempt to “influence or alter a committee of adjustment decision” and another 10 day suspension for conducting business outside city council meetings. For what Boghosian deemed the most serious infraction, he recommended a 30 day pay suspension for Kircher’s treatment of councillor John McTaggart.

An email dated December 9, 2022 to McTaggart, cc’d to all members of Council, made an unproven allegation suggesting that McTaggart and the former Mayor withheld information from Council and Town’s external legal counsel regarding the term of the Boundary Waters Sustainable Forest License. The e-mail was cc’d to an OPP officer.

“The thing about this allegation that really put it over the top for me was the fact that there was a clearly implied threat of criminal prosecution of councilor McTaggart,” said Boghosian.

During an interview with McTaggart, the Commissioner found that McTaggart “advised that he missed the fact that the consolidated forestry license had been extended an additional 10 years until 2032. He noted he is not a lawyer and doubts he would have understood the significance of that extension even if he had noticed it,” stated the report. McTaggart has never been contacted by the OPP on the matter.

Additional contraventions included sending “e-mails to all of council that requested a decision or action that should have taken place in a council meeting,” stated Hallikas’ complaint.

Town staff provided the commissioner with several examples, including requesting the creation of reports, and the invitation of presenters, or legal councel without prior approval of council through a notice of motion process.

“Councillor Kircher has shared closed meeting information by email, he has individually attempted to direct administration outside of a duly called meeting, he has circumvented the CAO chain of command and had direct conversations with staff or statutory officers (in violation of the Council and Staff relations policy), he has insinuated that staff is acting in bad faith (forgetting meeting minutes or the pool closure) and has asked for information outside of a council meeting implying some sort of wrongdoing or failure to carry out due diligence by staff. As well he has implied that there has been a leak of information by councillors and has repeatedly accused one councillor of acting in bad faith,” wrote Hallikas in his complaint.

In the commissioner’s interviews with staff, he was told that Kircher’s behaviour had been distracting and at times embarrassing. His conduct with staff was described as sometimes “willful and disrespectful.”

According to the commissioner, Kircher had been warned about his behaviour several times by councillors and staff, with no change. The commissioner also felt that kircher showed no remorse for his treatment of McTaggart.

Kircher was interviewed during the course of the report’s investigation. He justified sending confidential e-mails to his private address due to fear of manipulation, but declined to elaborate. He also defended group e-mails, stating that “there is a well-established pattern of councillors communicating with one another and with Town staff by email that is very much standard operating procedure on Council.”

In defense of requesting reports and presenters in council, Kircher felt the issues at hand should be debated in a public forum. For instance, he had unilaterally requested that the clerk release all correspondence between the Town and Agency One regarding the tree cutting bordering the communities, to be debated in the public portion of council.

“It is ironic that I am being investigated for purported violations of the open meeting principle when all my actions and communications have been targeted at bringing into the open what has taken place behind closed doors,” he told the commissioner.

Kircher’s departure leaves a vacancy in the council chambers, which the Ontario Municipal Act dictates must be filled. The clerk will be bringing options forward to council at the next regular meeting, to be held May 27. According to the Ontario Municipal Act, the vacancy can be filled by either an appointment or a by-election.

The Integrity Commissioner report is available in full to the public, on the Town of Fort Frances website, within the agenda package of the May 13 2024 regular council meeting, item 9.1.

By Louis Bergeron, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on May 21, 2024 at 15:12

This item reprinted with permission from    The Times    Fort Frances, Ontario
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