Petrolia CAO resigns as mayor battles public outcry
Top Row (L-R): Councillor Tim Brown, Councillor Joel Field, Councillor Ross O’Hara, Councillor Grant Purdy. Bottom Row (L-R): Councillor Mary-Pat Gleeson, departed CAO Manny Baron, Mayor John McCharles, Councillor Liz Welsh. (Town of Petrolia website)
An Ontario town born from a 19th-century oil gusher is mired in political muck, its top bureaucrat gone after a murky land deal and a rookie councillor saying he’d been the target of intimidation.
“I’ve been targeted because I’m speaking out,” Petrolia Coun. Grant Purdy said Wednesday. “(But) I want to show my kids you don’t back down to bullying and intimidation.”
Purdy spoke to The London Free Press a day after Manny Baron resigned Tuesday from his post as chief administrative officer. His resignation came in the wake of a report to council that examined why Baron had not disclosed ownership of two buildings leased to the town, including a building Baron bought from a local developer, then sold back soon after questions were raised, property records for 395 Fletcher St. show.
Baron owned that property and one at 4168 Robert St. through a numbered Ontario company.
Council refused to make that report public and instead ordered their integrity commissioner to investigate Purdy.
Asked about the investigation of Purdy and why the report is being kept under lock and key, Mayor John McCharles told The Free Press that he has been advised by two integrity commissioners to keep the report confidential, and that because the investigation involved personnel too, the reasons for it shouldn’t be disclosed.
On one point the mayor and the rookie councillor agree: Many people in the town have been stirred to anger by what a local newspaper, The Independent, has written about the land deals. Not surprisingly, Purdy says their anger and demands for answers are reasonable, while McCharles says they have tarnished as corrupt a council that is honest and a staff he says is the best in Ontario.
The mayor’s anger was so palpable, he spent the first part of an interview accusing a Free Press reporter of not working for the paper and instead being in cahoots with The Independent — an accusation he later withdrew.
“What has been written, it directs that somehow the council of Petrolia is corrupt, which it is not,” McCharles said. One town employee, a woman, was even confronted with angry words in a local grocery store, he said.
Purdy is no stranger to pressure — he’s been a Lambton County paramedic for 23 years. But he says he encountered pressure of another sort months after he was elected to council at the end of 2014 and created a Facebook page to communicate with constituents.
McCharles told him to come to the town office, where he was seated across the table from the mayor and Baron, who chastised him for using social media, Purdy said. The two were angry he had posted a link to how a new CEO in Brampton had cleaned house, an act Purdy had praised because frontline workers had been protected.
“They tried to intimidate me for speaking out,” Purdy said. “(They said) I shouldn’t be discussing town issues on social media.”
The mayor recalls the meeting but has a vastly different account. “We were trying to help a new councillor; give him some leadership,” he said. “We brought him in because he has made remarks about things he maybe should retract (about) our staff. We were trying to help him.”
The two are in opposing sides of other issues too:
- Purdy says McCharles persuaded council to create a $250 charge for anyone seeking a review of decisions to discuss matters behind closed doors rather than in public session, but the mayor insists all Lambton County administrators had agreed to do so.
- McCharles and Baron pushed for a change in code of conduct for council that would have forbid councillors from speaking to the media, an effort that failed, Purdy says. The mayor says the change simply would have recognized him or staff as designated spokespeople for the town.
- Purdy says McCharles confines too many issues to closed-door session and uses intimidating language, assertions the mayor rejects.
The mayor denied as false a rumour that he, a realtor, or his company, Re-max, was involved in the two properties whose ownership led to Baron’s resignation.
The person hired by the town to investigate the property leases, a veteran of government and former city hall manager in London, John Fleming, said it was up to Petrolia council to decide whether to make his report public.
Issues underlying his probe led to the forming of a citizen’s group demanding answers from town hall, an audit of the town’s books and a public airing of the report by Fleming.
The spokesperson for that group, Wade Deighton, says the lease deals raises real questions about what else might be lurking, concerns that demand answers.
“It turns out we have a lot of concerns,” said Deighton, who went to high school in Petrolia and returned there to live five years ago. Residents in his group, which number about a dozen, have questions about the way the city licenses businesses, fails to advertise notice of meeting with local media and has procurement rules that might allow too many purchases to fly under the radar.
“We want transparency,” Deighton said. “We want the town (council) to work for the benefit of the community.”
Coun. Joel Field said there are many things that Petrolia town administration has done well, including work by Baron. “We have excellent staff and I know that Petrolia will move forward,” he said. Baron helped to enhance Main Street and launch the Central Lambton Family Health Team, Field said.
Council has named deputy clerk Mandi Pearson as interim chief administrative officer while a search is conducted for a permanent CAO.