In an unusual move by the town’s integrity commissioner, a report written in March and intended to remain confidential has been released to the public.
The report deals with a complaint made by Colin Telfer in October, 2021, against Lord Mayor Betty Disero. He said he believed she had contravened the town’s code of conduct by becoming involved in Telfer and Jennifer Elliott’s request for a bed and breakfast permit renewal, which was not granted.
The Integrity Commissioner’s report gives a detailed chronology of the events, coming to the conclusion that withholding the licence “had nothing to do with the lord mayor whatsoever,” and that Elliott’s Facebook post indicating there was living space in the garage led to the complaint.
It said that senior staff and the town’s lawyer, Terry Hill, believed it was Telfer and Elliott’s “refusal to comply with a legitimate inspection request about something which appeared, on the surface, to be a potential bylaw compliance issue” that prompted the withholding of the B&B licence.
Typically, Integrity Commissioner reports that find no wrong-doing, such as the investigation into the lord mayor’s actions, remain confidential to protect the reputation of the person who has been absolved from committing any violation. Reports are made public when a politician has contravened a bylaw or code of conduct.
In this case, Edward McDermott, Integrity Commissioner for Niagara-on-the-Lake, received a letter from Disero requesting that his report be made public and he agreed, asking it to be included on the agenda for council at the next available opportunity, which is Thursday, Aug. 18.
McDermott said he considered Disero’s request as well as Telfer’s response — he was “vigorously opposed” to making it public.
“I have also reviewed the contents of an open letter to council (by Jennifer Elliott, dated July 15, 2022) which relates to many of the matters which were the subject matter of my investigation and decision.”
“I am aware,” he continued, “that these matters have now become the subject of public scrutiny and discourse,” and that it would be in the best interest of the public to know the extent of the investigation and the decision made as a result.
In a letter to council published by Elliott on social media in July, she said once the town knew about the issue, it should have gone before council, and Disero should have declared a conflict. Instead the town, after refusing to issue a B&B
renewal because of the complaint, denied the complaint even existed, by explaining it was just a matter of a necessary inspection, her letter said. “This denial continued for many months,” she said, until she learned there was a complaint, with Dan Williams, Disero’s husband, behind it.
Elliott said she decided to write the letter and post it on social media when she realized councillors had not been made aware of the situation, or given a chance to discuss it.
When Disero saw that and the ensuing articles in the media, knowing she had been exonerated from any code violation and that Telfer and Elliott were aware of that, she asked that the report be made public.
“It was my only defence,” she told The Local.
She had issued a statement to The Local in July saying she had never used her office of lord mayor for her personal advantage, and to comment on the the allegations “would be to do what I am accused of and what I completely deny doing. I am duty bound not to take advantage of information I have only because of my office of lord mayor to my personal advantage.”
She said she had acted with integrity; had not sought to influence town employees for her personal advantage; and had not acted in a way that would give rise to a conflict of interest, bad faith, or undue influence. “I have certainly not acted in a way that is illegal or improper,” she said.
The Integrity Commissioner’s investigation, and March 2022 report, confirmed that, but Disero could not divulge to the public that there had been an investigation or what the report said.
Elliott and Telfer had initially said, as the report confirmed, that they originally thought a neighbour’s complaint about their large garage was impeding their application for a 2020 B&B licence renewal, but didn’t believe an inspection of the garage, which they said was not living space, was required, so they wouldn’t let the bylaw officer in to look at it without a warrant — a warrant the bylaw department said wasn’t required for a B&B inspection.
Later that year, Elliott sent a letter to council members (including the lord mayor), saying she appeared to be having another neighbour-related issue. She requested the assistance of council to resolve the complaint and the B&B licence issue, but received no response.
Early in 2021, David Marshall, the lawyer for Telfer and Elliott, wrote to the town advising that six months had passed without a charge and the town needed to either issue a charge or close the investigation and issue the B&B licence. Several weeks later, their lawyer received correspondence from the town’s solicitor, Terry Hill, saying there “was never a neighbour complaint” and that the inspection by the bylaw officer was part of the B&B licence renewal process.
But Telfer and Elliott had already been informed about a complaint, and said they were suspicious that someone who “possessed a great amount of authority” was targeting them.
In April, 2021, Telfer and Elliott began a court application to get the matter resolved, also asking for damages to cover the loss of income from being unable to operate their B&B, and their legal costs.
The town’s response was to say there was a complaint, filed by Williams. It was never anonymous, but his name had not been revealed, according to town policy. When asked to allow his name to be revealed, Williams “was quite agreeable to this proposal.” In regard to the complaint, the report said, it was not about anyone living in the garage, but rather that it was being converted into living space, which Williams had taken from comments on social media.
The garage borders the property of Disero and Williams, and Telfer, the report said, believed the lord mayor had interceded “and abused her authority to have bylaw enforcement improperly involved in investigating a false complaint by her own spouse, and consequently (whether directly or indirectly) resulting in the non-renewal of their B&B licence.”
Asked by Marnie Cluckie, the town CAO, and Hill, on June 23, 2021, Disero said she had not submitted any bylaw complaint. Later that day, the report said, she was shown a photo that indicated the shadow of the person taking the photo, and said it appeared to be Williams, and when she asked him, he confirmed he had made the complaint, due to the information he had read on Facebook.
“The Lord Mayor advised that she herself does not have a Facebook account and had no knowledge of this complaint by Mr. Williams prior to this time,” the report said.
She also said she had not talked to staff about the complaint, which was backed by Hill, who said that staff had confirmed that to him.
Disero said when she first received the August, 2020 letter from Elliott, “she believed this was related to a dispute between Ms. Elliott and another neighbour regarding a hedge (something which the Lord Mayor had discussed with Ms. Elliott the previous year, but not since,” the report said.
Telfer “expressed incredulity at the lord mayor’s response.” He said it was “beyond the realm of believability that a seemingly competent chief executive officer would claim not to be aware of a complaint made by her own husband, with whom she lives and presumably has daily communication, to the very corporation she leads, until one year after the complaint was made…”
Telfer asserted then that “someone…attempted to hide the existence of the Williams / Disero’s involvement” in the matter. He accordingly asserted his view that Disero “…used her position of authority to influence town employees in the investigation of her husband’s complaint against our property.”
Cluckie also indicated she had asked a number of staff members whether they had been contacted by the lord mayor about the issue, and they all advised that they had not been contacted by or spoken to her about it.
According to Cluckie, staff would have followed the normal procedure for such a bylaw complaint regardless of who submitted it. She said if entry was denied “such that safety and bylaw compliance cannot be established, the normal result of such a scenario (irrespective of who is involved) would be the withholding of any licence application connected to the property in question.”
Hill noted that the attempted inspection by a bylaw officer (following up on the Facebook post which was submitted to the town in Williams’ bylaw complaint) was a different process from that carried out by the first bylaw officer on her routine inspection of the property as part of the B&B licence application process.
Regarding Hill’s letter to Telfer’s lawyer that said there was “no complaint,” Hill clarified he intended to communicate that there was no “anonymous complaint,” not that there was no complaint at all.
He also said in a February, 2022 email to Telfer’s lawyer that the town would like to carry out its inspections. “If everything is in order then a licence will be issued. My client is prepared to litigate the issue but I hope your client reflects upon the language of the bylaw and allows an inspection to occur.”
Hill said he felt comfortable “there was no interference” by the lord mayor. In his view, town staff handled the matter as they would any other, because Williams “is a resident of the town and has the same rights as any other resident.”
What cannot be permitted, Hill asserted, is for the lord mayor to “take up his cause.”
Hill expressed his confidence that this did not occur, and that Williams’ bylaw complaint “was handled routinely and without intervention by the lord mayor.”
Rolf Wiens, the manager in charge of building-related issues, said there was no request for any special information or to make any particular requests or comments about this matter – there was no special attention paid to this matter compared to any others, the report says.
Disero says she requested having the report made public to answer the “false allegations” made against her, information she could not share because of the confidentiality agreement signed by both parties.
With the election season upon us, she continued, “the cabal will do what they are doing,” referring to those who don’t want to see her re-elected. “I encourage people to take what they hear with a grain of salt. I think the good people of NOTL will know when to believe and when not to.”
There is still a court hearing to come as a result of the law suit filed by Telfer and Elliott, a separate issue to the allegations of Disero’s interference and the Integrity Commissioner’s report.
Disero became emotional when asked about Telfer’s assertion that she would claim not to be aware of a complaint made by her husband.
“I’ve been in politics for 40 years,” she told The Local. “My family loves me and supports me. They know the rules as well as I do. They know my obligations as a member of council. They would never do, and I would never do anything to jeopardize my career.”
She says there was a time when her mother, who lives in the Old Town, complained to the region about pot holes on a regional road. Disero didn’t know about it until she read it in the paper.
She said Williams has the same right as any other resident in NOTL to make a complaint, and would never do it in such a way as to jeopardize her. As far as she knows, “he might have other complaints,” she added.
He and their son Jason, who lives next door, “know not to come to me with their complaints. They know it’s a conflict of interest,” she said, ‘but they have the right to make them.”
Elliott says her letter sent to council and posted on social media was written “when we learned that no one on council knew anything at all about our lawsuit, the NRP investigation and most importantly, the mayor’s husband’s involvement.”
She says she and Telfer “were flabbergasted when we had to agree to a non-disclosure agreement regarding the Integrity Commissioner’s report.”
When Telfer was contacted recently by the Integrity Commissioner to have the report made public, she says, “he initially said no, because the report is extremely misleading and we are now very suspicious of her intent . . . but after reading it again, we realized that it didn’t contradict my letter, in fact, it confirmed it. Colin will be writing a public letter to the IC discrediting his investigation.”