Junkin apoplectic at COVID-19-specific motion, says he will not adhere to it
Pelham Town Council’s 3-2 vote on Monday, April 27, to effectively muzzle Mayor Marvin Junkin from acting as a Town spokesperson on COVID-19 matters, may have the opposite effect intended by the councillors who brought the measure forward.
Junkin, for one, says he will refuse to adhere to it.
“The Municipal Act does not provide a council any legitimate way to take away the powers of a head of council,” the Mayor told the Voice. “They had no more right to pass that motion than they do to regulate the speed limit on the QEW. I will not be restricting any of my comments because of it.”
The motion was tabled out of nowhere by Councillor Bob Hildebrandt and seconded by Lisa Haun.
“That is a horrendous, I can’t stress enough, a horrendous blow to democracy,” an angry Junkin told the meeting—once again held via videoconference due to the coronavirus pandemic. “That’s what it is.”
The motion passed with Hildebrandt, Haun and Councillor Marianne Stewart voting in favour. Junkin and Councillor John Wink voted against.
The resolution puts responsibility for Town statements regarding COVID-19 in the hands of CAO David Cribbs—and, as pertaining to public safety, Fire Chief Bob Lymburner.
Cribbs stressed to the Voice that he was not involved in devising the measure.
“For the record, my office did not seek this delegation of authority,” the CAO said.
For the record, my office did not seek this delegation of authority
During the meeting, Hildebrandt explained his motion by saying, “Given the potential for municipal liability and/or confusion arising from any public misstatements pertaining to the coronavirus or the Town’s approach to addressing it, or the sensitivity of such aspects as the safety and functionality of major employers in Pelham, consistency is of paramount importance. The reason for my motion is the number of emails that I as a councillor have received, and calls I have received … my motion will be that the CAO will be appointed as the sole spokesman for the Town of Pelham, save and except Chief Lymburner [regarding COVID-19] for the duration of this pandemic. Council must be notified of all statements made on behalf of the Town within 24 hours.”
Hildebrandt did not respond when asked by the Voice about the nature of the emails and phone calls he asserted he received.
As debate got heated, Hildebrandt asked whether discussion on his motion should be deferred until later in the meeting, to be discussed in closed session, out of public view. Junkin objected.
“No, I’m against that,” the Mayor said. “We are not going to move this in camera. This deserves to be debated in the public eye. We are not going to hide it. We’re going to have a recorded vote in public so that everyone can see.”
Hildebrandt’s move came on the heels Ward 2 Councillor and Sobeys franchisee Ron Kore’s reported conduct in public while exhibiting signs of a respiratory illness. Kore tested positive for COVID-19 early last week. News of his continued attendance at his grocery store and on council business, while likely infected according to Niagara Public Health’s timeline, drew regional and then national attention to Pelham, including on CBC’s The National news program.
Asked by the Voice whether their move could be perceived as being motivated by political rather than public safety considerations, neither Hildebrandt nor Haun—seen as a close ally of Kore—responded.
For the second straight meeting, Kore was not in attendance. Kore has not replied to Voice requests for comment since April 6, when he pushed to attend that day’s council meeting in person, despite COVID-19 precautions at Town Hall. Kore did not attend the April 6 meeting in person or by videoconference.
Asked if he believed that concerns over litigation from Kore drove Hildebrandt’s motion, Councillor John Wink told the Voice he didn’t think so.
“I think that’s a stretch,” the Ward 2 councillor said Thursday. “I don’t think it has anything to do with litigation, but you may want to ask that of the other councillors … I can’t speculate what their thought process was.”
Hildebrandt did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Haun directed the newspaper to CAO Cribbs.
Wink doesn’t believe Junkin said anything out of line during his media interviews.
“I don’t think the Mayor has been doing anything incorrectly or doing a bad job with respect to COVID information,” he said. “He has the right to speak on behalf of the town and our community and if you look at any other [municipality] … it’s also the mayor speaking, it’s the mayor of Toronto, the mayor of Hamilton, St. Catharines, whatever.”
I don’t think the Mayor has been doing anything incorrectly or doing a bad job with respect to COVID information
During the council meeting, Haun said she didn’t want the mayor speaking for her, while highlighting Cribbs’ “media training.”
“Mr. Mayor, you’re welcome to speak on your own behalf,” she told a visibly annoyed Junkin. “But I think what Councillor Hildebrandt is trying to say is, and certainly myself, is I don’t want you speaking on my behalf—especially with things that I may have a completely different opinion on.”
“Show me in the Municipal Act where a council can do this,” he said.
For her part, Councillor Marianne Stewart told council that she didn’t feel comfortable talking to the press during the fallout from the Kore affair, and seemed to wonder if Junkin was allowing emotions to get the better of him.
“Speaking for myself, in light of the circumstances that presented themselves in the last week, I don’t know about the councillors, but I was contacted by both CBC Toronto and Hamilton, and [CHCH-TV] and a slew of other media outlets,” she said. “Speaking to them would’ve been far above my pay grade because of the emotional nature of everything that’s happened, so I deferred all of that to the CAO.”
Stewart did not acknowledge a Voice request to say why she voted for the motion.
Asked for reaction after the meeting, Junkin said that the move came as a surprise.
“There was no warning from [Hildebrandt], no discussion with me in advance, he just brought the motion with no heads-up to me. And when I asked the councillor whether, if this motion passed, would I have to hand the material that I write for the newspaper to the CAO for his approval, unbelievably, without batting an eye, and with no hint of embarrassment, he said ‘yes.’ So think about it. They want an unelected official to okay what an elected official puts in the paper for the residents to read.”
Junkin said that he was never provided with evidence that he had made any inaccurate statements.
“At no time during the discussion was any proof given of past inaccuracies. When putting my communication together I have always used federal and provincial information sites, and checked any facts with the Fire Chief. I am positive that I have not misstated any facts in any of my interviews or columns. I take the privilege of being Mayor very seriously and have always made sure that my information is correct.”
CAO Cribbs explained that in crises, it is not uncommon for municipal councils to designate a single point of contact, but also said there is very little anyone can do about restricting the free speech of an officeholder.
“The rights of every elected official to engage in constitutionally protected speech cannot be limited without adequate justification,” Cribbs told the Voice.
The rights of every elected official to engage in constitutionally protected speech cannot be limited without adequate justification
He added that he can’t discipline Junkin for speaking publicly.
“The office of the CAO does not, will not and cannot engage in disciplinary measures against an elected official for engaging in alleged conduct that runs contrary to a vote of council. Only a majority of council, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice or the Integrity Commissioner have authority or jurisdiction to address alleged rule-breaking by one of its members.”
Brock Professor Emeritus of Political Science David Siegel agreed that if Junkin continues to speak regarding COVID-19, the penalties are few and without much bite.
“Council could pass a motion of censure, which doesn’t have any practical consequence, except stating the opinion of the majority of council,” said Siegel.
He said that council could escalate the matter to the Integrity Commissioner, who could come back with a recommendation that Junkin lose a certain amount of pay and be prohibited from attending council meetings for a given period.
“There’s very strong idea in Ontario legislation that these people have been duly elected by the electorate and they should have the right to represent the electorate in the way they see fit, and then the electorate can deal with that at the next election,” said Siegel. “But it’s not up to individual councillors to discipline other councillors except in areas where the integrity commissioner has become involved.”
Siegel said he had seen attempts elsewhere in Ontario to restrict free speech among elected officials.
“There’s always an issue around councillors trying to find a way to muzzle other councillors, and frequently they want to direct the mayor to do something, and they can’t do that. Councillors and the mayor are elected representatives, they have a right to speak. In certain circumstances it might be unwise for them to do so, but you can’t restrict their right to speak. You do hear about it every once in awhile, and it always has the same outcome. They’re elected members and they have a right to speak their minds.”
In certain circumstances it might be unwise for them to do so, but you can’t restrict their right to to speak.
Siegel noted that over the years he had served on various municipal legal panels with Pelham’s CAO, who is a licensed attorney.
“What I get from these sorts of things is that the CAO is put in a very difficult position. It sounds like the CAO in this case has handled it very well.”
Junkin said that he is curious to see how those who voted for Hildebrandt’s motion will react when, “they realize I will pay no heed to it.”
“Will they banish me from the town? Perhaps proclaim a sentence of death by firing squad? Or—and this is the worst —will they insist that I comb my hair? All kidding aside, the residents of Pelham should feel deeply insulted by the actions of these three councillors.”
With reporting by John Chick and Dave Burket.