Taxpayer tab for recommended reprimand—$18,430
The results of two reviews into Pelham Town Council’s conduct concerning fundraising for renovations of the Bandshell in Fonthill’s Peace Park have been made public.
The investigations were undertaken on the basis of two complaints filed early this year by Town Councillor Ron Kore—the first with the Ontario Ombudsman, the second with the Town’s Integrity Commissioner, the firm ADR Chambers, which is on retainer among Niagara municipalities to review alleged violations of municipal codes of conduct.
Kore’s complaints related to Mayor Marvin Junkin’s participation in fundraising for the Fonthill Bandshell Committee.
Last September, Pelham Town Council voted to assist the resident-run, volunteer Bandshell Committee with its planned upgrades to the Peace Park facility by loaning the group $75,000 dollars to finish construction before the start of the 2020 season. This “Jazz Up The Park” initiative was aimed in large part at making the Bandshell more accessible to older audience members with mobility issues, improving lighting, and regrading the slope leading down to the Bandshell to increase seating safety.
The Bandshell Committee was expected to fundraise the money and pay back the Town’s loan.
To help the Committee fundraise, Mayor Marvin Junkin sent letters to local businesses inviting their contributions to the project. At a meeting at Town Hall in late autumn on a separate matter, a representative of CannTrust, the cannabis producer operating in Fenwick, told Junkin the firm was considering making a large donation to the effort—on the order of $25,000, specifically for new lighting.
Junkin advised Committee member Gayle Baltjes that a large amount might be coming in from a local corporation, but advised her to keep the news confidential until the donation was confirmed. Junkin told the Ombudsman and the Integrity Commissioners that given CannTrust’s history and financial difficulties, he was doubtful that the offer would be fulfilled.
In advance of Town Council’s January 13 meeting, a Bandshell Committee member told Junkin they were planning on including mention of the donation in their presentation to council on fundraising progress. Four other local companies had committed cash or in-kind contributions of between $10,000 and $25,000 dollars each.
Twenty-five additional companies or individuals, the Town itself, plus the Fonthill Legion and Fonthill Rotary, had also pledged cash or in-kind support. The Voice had committed $1000 to the project. Kore himself, through his franchised Fonthill Sobeys store, pledged between $1000 and $4999.
Unsure as to whether council would ultimately want to accept the CannTrust donation, given the company’s controversiality, Junkin said he wanted to get council’s opinion before the Bandshell Committee mentioned the donation publicly.
On January 9, four days before council was to meet, Junkin ran into three councillors at the opening of a minor hockey tournament at the community centre. He briefly told them about CannTrust’s potential contribution and asked them to think about whether they thought it was acceptable.
Later that evening, Junkin emailed the three other councillors, who were not present earlier at the community centre, with the same question, and invited them to email him their opinions.
All six councillors said that the donation should not be accepted. With what Junkin called his “informal poll” complete, he replied to the councillors to say that he would inform the Bandshell Committee that the potential donation would not be acceptable after all. During their January 13 presentation, the Bandshell Committee accordingly did not mention CannTrust.
Kore’s objections, leaked emails
Responding to Junkin’s email inviting council opinion about CannTrust, Councillor Ron Kore objected to Junkin’s efforts at the informal poll, terming it a “back room deal.” Junkin replied to Kore, saying that his comment was “the height of silliness.”
On January 11, in response to what he termed Kore’s borderline attempt to blackmail him by going public with Junkin’s poll of council, the Mayor preemptively reached out to the Voice and to Pelham Cannabis Control Committee chair Tim Nohara to inform them of the CannTrust donation that was no longer a donation.
At midday on January 13, Kore leaked seven internal emails to the Voice containing council’s debate over the issue. Six of the emails he additionally copied to Nohara.
Kore did not add any explanatory comments or requests of the newspaper or Nohara.
Shortly later, Nohara replied to Kore, copying the Voice, stating that he did not want to be “drawn into this discussion at all.”
In mid-afternoon, Voice publisher Dave Burket emailed Kore, asking, “Did you wish to pursue this as a story? If so, I’ll have a writer be in touch directly.”
A half-hour later, Kore replied, “Yes.”
The following morning, Burket answered, “Great. Expect someone to be in touch. Thanks,” and asked Voice contributor John Chick to contact Kore.
Chick did so that afternoon, writing to Kore, “Hi Ron, I was told by Dave Burket that you have some concerns regarding CannTrust’s donation to the Bandshell. Let me know when you are free to talk, it may have to be over the phone or via email.”
By 9:45 that evening, Chick reported that Kore had not responded to his request for an interview.
The next morning Burket again emailed Kore, writing, “Hey Ron, John Chick says he hasn’t heard back from you. You still up for story? Thanks.”
A half-hour later, Kore replied, “Call me sometime this week.”
Burket repeatedly did so, never reaching Kore.
“So I stopped by the store,” said Burket over the weekend, “where I figured we’d be able to have a discreet conversation.”
They did, said Burket, but Kore would not agree to publicly bring the matter to the media.
“He thought that there was a smoking gun in the emails that spoke for itself, but I didn’t see it. I saw a group of people trying to avoid embarrassing themselves, and the Bandshell Committee, by avoiding a potentially risky donation from a company that not a whole lot of residents liked.”
At the same time, Burket said, any CannTrust-related story is “journalistic gold,” rating highly among Voice readers, and he encouraged Kore to go on the record.
Kore eventually told Burket that he would instead file complaints with both the Ombudsman of Ontario, and the municipal Integrity Commissioner.
In his complaint to the Integrity Commissioner, Kore alleged that Junkin convened an improper meeting of council—at both the community center and through email—to conceal council’s debate over CannTrust’s potential donation. Kore further alleged that in Junkin’s role as Mayor, it was improper for him to solicit donations on behalf of the Bandshell Committee. Finally, Kore alleged that Junkin “disparaged” his character by calling Kore’s allegation of a back room deal the “height of silliness.”
Each complaint cited alleged violations of the Town’s Code of Conduct, which was the focus of the Integrity Commissioner’s subsequent investigation.
A complaint was also filed with the Ontario Ombudsman—presumably by Kore, based on his asserted intentions to the Voice— about an alleged improper Town Council meeting at the community centre and over email. (The Ombudsman does not disclose who makes complaints.) Complaints to the Ombudsman pertain to alleged violations of the Ontario Municipal Act.
Findings of the investigations
In a comparatively short, eight-page decision, the Ombudsman determined that Junkin and council did not contravene the Municipal Act—neither at the community centre, nor through email—and that no improper meeting of council occurred.
The Ombudsman also determined that the Town of Pelham itself acted without legal authority when it decided to inform the Bandshell Committee that it was not in favour of accepting a potential donation from a cannabis company.
Taking 27 pages to lay out his case, the Town’s Integrity Commissioner determined that Junkin’s letters seeking donations for the Bandshell violated the Town’s Code of Conduct.
However, contrary to Kore’s allegation, the Commissioner concluded that because council had already voted in favour of helping the Bandshell Committee, Junkin was not involved in decisions about how the donations should be allocated.
The Commissioner also concluded that Junkin’s soliciting of council opinion violated the Town’s code, determining that the matter should have been discussed during a regular council meeting, and that Junkin’s description of his contact with councillors as an “informal poll” was misleading.
Finally, the Commissioner concluded that when Junkin dismissed Kore’s allegation of a back room deal as “the height of silliness,” he did not disparage Kore’s character.
“The language…did not attack the Complainant’s character or directly insult him as a person,” the Commissioner wrote. “While it is certainly not the most productive language the Mayor could have employed to voice his disagreement…it can hardly be described as a ‘disparaging comment about another member.’”
Despite finding that Junkin had violated different sections of the code, the Commissioner effectively concluded that the Mayor’s intentions were not dishonourable.
“It is not our view that the Mayor did so for nefarious purposes,” the report says. “We accept that the Mayor likely intended to avoid the potential for public discourse over a potential donation which may never materialize. In other words, he did not want to cause a problem for Council, or for the Bandshell Committee, or for the residents of Pelham without there at least being a benefit for all at the end of the road.”
The Commissioner recommended that Junkin receive the least-severe penalty possible, a reprimand from Town Council.
Council took up the matter at this Monday’s scheduled council meeting. For reasons that were not specific, Councillor Kore declared a conflict of interest and did not participate in debate over Junkin’s punishment. Junkin himself made a short statement before the debate started, criticizing the cost of investigating what he termed trivial issues.
“Quite frankly I’ve had enough, I’m not going to participate in any more discussions,” the Mayor said. “I’m now going to bid council, and the senior staff that is left, goodnight.”
After Junkin left council chambers, Councillor Bob Hildebrandt read a statement from Kore, who defended his choice to file the original complaints.
Council ultimately voted to issue a letter of reprimand to Junkin, and dock him 45 days’ pay.
While the Ontario Ombudsman’s investigation was not charged to the Town, Pelham taxpayers are on the hook for the Integrity Commissioner’s report, to the tune of $18,430. The Voice has learned that a presumably less costly option to mediate—rather than investigate—the complaints was offered to both parties, and rejected by Kore.
Reaction to findings
The Voice reached out to each Town councillor, the Mayor, the CAO, the Bandshell Committee, and Brock Political Science professor emeritus David Siegel for their takes on Kore’s allegations and the investigations’ conclusions.
No Town councillor responded to the comment request.
Mayor Junkin elected to submit a detailed statement, which runs separately in its entirety here.
Pelham CAO David Cribbs, asked whether he could recall similar investigations launched in other municipalities where he worked, based on what looked like slim grounds for complaint, replied that both the Ombudsman and the Integrity Commissioner have the power to dismiss complaints if they feel them to be frivolous.
“In this case, neither did so,” said Cribbs, “implying that there appeared to be merit in the allegations. The conclusions of each investigation find only modest, technical violations, so with hindsight the complaints can be accurately characterized as ‘slim.’”
On the $18,340 cost, Cribbs said, “The bill reflects the volume of work required for a multi-month investigation and the drafting of a report.”
Bandshell Committee chair Gayle Baltjes expressed shock that investigations were warranted.
“We had no idea the Municipal Act forbids good-hearted and right-minded actions in elected officials,” said Baltjes, after reviewing both reports.
Baltjes said that the Bandshell Committee hadn’t been offered a donation by a cannabis producer that they were aware of, but that they had no objection in principle to accepting one in the future.
“As a non-profit group forever seeking donations to bring free family-friendly entertainment to our community,” said Baltjes, “we welcome contributions from one and all to offset the costs of our community endeavours.”
Baltjes did not share Councillor Kore’s characterization of the Mayor’s fundraising efforts as a “back room deal.”
“No, not at all. Our feelings are the Mayor was simply being supportive in handing out our fundraising pamphlets when he came across potential donors. We are saddened to learn that as a part of this community that the Mayor and councillors cannot openly support us or any other group in our fundraising, which is the end result of this report.”
Brock University Political Science professor emeritus David Siegel, who has spent decades observing Canadian politics, reviewed the results of both investigations and found little of substance.
“It is something of a mountain out of a molehill,” said Siegel, who added that prohibitions against elected officials soliciting funds are aimed at preventing personal gain, not at stopping a community fundraising effort.
Siegel cited former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford as an example, who solicited donations for his high school football team.
“He called on people who were suppliers, who had dealings with the city of Toronto, using his position as mayor to leverage these people. I think everybody agrees that this would be inappropriate.”
Reminded of former Pelham Mayor David Augustyn’s annual “Mayor’s Gala” fundraiser, Siegel noted that several cities partner with private industry on different projects—a prime example in Pelham being the Meridian Community Centre.
“As far as I can see [in the Kore complaint], there were some technical things that weren’t done the way they should have been done. But in the final analysis, [council] simply decided not to do something, and you don’t really need a motion of council not to do something.”
Siegel said at some point the province will need to “fine-tune” the Integrity Commissioner’s mandate, in part to address complaints being filed more on the basis of personal animosity rather than for substantive wrongdoing.
“There’s personal animus between a couple of people and the next thing you know there’s a formal complaint to the Integrity Commissioner, which then of course costs the municipality a pretty significant amount of money. That’s not really what the Integrity Commissioner was about, but that seems to be the way the Integrity Commissioner is used—not just in Pelham but in a variety of places.”
Advised that the Town was billed $18,430 for the Commissioner’s investigation, Siegel said that Pelham got off “fairly cheap.”
“You know lawyers, right? These things get to $50,000, $60,000 very easily. But [this case] was something that was quite easy to investigate. The facts were hardly in question. Everything hinged on interpretation.”
Peter Piper’s incident
On the issue of personality differences and potential animosity, it is no secret inside Town Hall, or to those who follow Pelham politics, that factions have developed on Town Council. Generally speaking, the Mayor and Councillor John Wink are in one camp, while Councillors Kore and Lisa Haun are in the other. The remaining members float back and forth, depending on the issue, as did Councillor Mike Ciolfi.
The relationship between Councillor Kore and the Mayor, however, has seemed fraught with a particularly personal hostility—but it’s only one-way, according to Junkin.
“I do my best to get along with everybody,” said the Mayor. “I think everyone always knows where they stand with me. I have no personal issues with Mr. Kore at all. Indeed I have gone out of my way, I believe, to work with him.”
Kore, however, seemed to take an early dislike to Junkin. An incident that occurred late in 2018, after the municipal election but before the new council was sworn in, may have been the catalyst.
The occasion was a meeting, held in Peter’s Piper’s downstairs dining room, among the newly elected council and Mayor. The group gathered one evening to discuss what they hoped to prioritize and accomplish during their first months in office. The talk turned to Town finances, specifically the creation of a resident-led audit committee to assess the Town’s financial difficulties.
According to multiple sources who were in the room, Kore stated that his skill with financial statements equaled a Chartered Accountant’s, owing to his work at Sobeys. The Mayor suggested that municipal accounting was different from commercial accounting, which in Kore’s case was likely handled more by Sobeys corporate accountants than at the store level, an assertion that Kore took offense to.
Asked about it over the weekend, Junkin recalled the exchange.
“At the time, we were discussing the formation of an audit committee, and how it would have at least two Chartered Accountants on it. Mr. Kore made the comment that he was just as capable with numbers as any C.A., because of having to deal with his business on a daily basis. I made the comment that he was probably looking at numbers that were compiled by the chain’s C.A.s. He was very offended by this remark, and demanded that I take it back. When I refused to do so, he gathered up his items and stormed out of the room.”
Junkin said that this was the first or second in a series of meetings before the new council was inaugurated. Kore did not attend any of the rest.
Kore did not acknowledge a request for comment over the weekend, asking if he recalled the conversation. ◆
Bandshell fundraising summary, as of mid-January
$10,000 – $25,000
• Lookout Ridge Retirement Home
• Taylor Foundation
• Rankin Construction (in kind)
• Dekorte’s Landscaping (in kind)
$5,000 – $9999
• Rotary Club of Fonthill
• Lafarge (in kind)
• Town of Pelham (in kind)
• Fonthill Bandshell Concerts
• Special mention: Young’s Sod (in kind & donation)
$1000 – $4999
• Royal Canadian Legion
• Sobeys Fonthill
• Maxine McPhail
• Rick & Lori Gretsinger
• Shane & Denyse Davis
• Voice of Pelham
• The Warden family
• Country Corner Market
• Pelham Hills Dentistry
• BZ Electric (in kind)
• Willowbrook Nursery (in kind)
• The Swan family
• Forest Green Creations (in kind)
• Welland Toyota
• Pelham Art Festival
• Marando Family Dentistry
• Noreen Casson
• The Macfarlane family
• Pharma Choice
• Nick’s Cleaners
• Pen Financial
• Peace Park Dental
• Len Doyle
With files from Dave Burket, Sam Piccolo, John Chick, and Don Rickers.