Region fills vacant seat, approves highly controversial recommendation from St. Catharines city council

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Siscoe, Britton

Only six regional councillors voted to oppose the recommendation from the City of St. Catharines to appoint Mat Siscoe (left): Leanna Villella from Welland, Bob Gale from Niagara Falls, Marvin Junkin from Pelham, Dave Bylsma from West Lincoln, Barbara Butters from Port Colborne, and Tim Whalen from Thorold. Based on policy and precedent, Mike Britton (right) should have been recommended.

 

After a special meeting Thursday, Jan. 6, Niagara Regional Council is once again whole, with Mat Siscoe controversially appointed to fill the vacancy left by the passing of Sandie Bellows. 

Regional councillors voted 23-6 to approve the recommendation handed down from the City of St. Catharines. As previously reported by The Niagara Independent, St. Catharines’ recommendation violated city policy and possibly several conflict-of-interest rules. Siscoe, for example, had a pecuniary interest in becoming a regional councillor and voted for himself in his role as St. Catharines city councillor. 

Had the city followed policy and precedent, ‘next place finisher’ Mike Britton would have been recommended to fill the vacancy.

Prior to voting Thursday, Regional Council listened to two delegations and received multiple emails in opposition to the Siscoe appointment.

In a letter authored by St. Catharines resident and executive director of A Better Niagara Ed Smith, Regional Council was asked to right the wrong committed by Mayor Walter Sendzik and his council.

“I ask that (Regional Council) require the City of St. Catharines to comply with provincial acts and policies by overruling their action and instate the legitimate regional councillor, Mike Britton,” wrote Smith. “The only person eligible under the correct democratic processes.”

St. Catharines resident and attorney Shawn Knights appeared as a delegate and passionately articulated his position. 

“Niagara residents expect that their local representatives would respect democracy and the will of the people, and not impose their own will over the will of the people.”  In reference to the Siscoe recommendation, Knights said, “I was shocked on December 13th when, in my view, those principles got thrown out the window, for what I consider to be cronyism.”

The Region also received a letter from Rev. Dr. Maj (ret) Harold Ristau, who wrote: “Your individual moral conscience not only enables you to detect corruption, but compels you to take the necessary actions to correct it, in spite of any personal risks and costs that you may suffer. Doing the right thing, and standing up against corruption has rarely been the popular route, historically. It is not too late for you to take actions to ensure that St. Catharines corrects this administrative duplicity and make decisions that make your constituents proud, rather than ashamed, of you.”

After hearing the delegations, Regional Council moved to go to closed session, outside the lens of the public, to receive legal advice. When they emerged, Regional Councillor Bob Gale moved a motion to release the Region’s legal advice publicly.

The legal opinion stated, “There have been critiques advanced from some members of the public that St. Catharines’ recommendation of Mr. Siscoe was in contravention of St. Catharines own policy #LCS 2015-9 and the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act…However, Regional Council has no authority to declare any proceedings of another municipal council void on the basis of an alleged conflict of interest or failure of the other municipality to adhere to its internal policies.”

Given the opinion, the Region’s hired lawyer concluded the Regional Council should follow its own policy and accept the recommendation of St. Catharines city council.

Regional Councillor Laura Ip agreed, stating: “This is easy, we follow our own policy, which clearly the watching voters, the two dozen of them, want us to do, as they are proponents of following policies, and we accept the recommendation of St. Catharines city council.”

Regional Councillor Barbara Butters disagreed. She passionately informed her colleagues, “I have no interest in adjudicating St. Catharines’ council decisions, and I’m interested in my own conscious and my own sense of what I see as the democratic process…my vote is going to reflect the trust our citizens have placed in all of us and I will not be supporting the (Siscoe) motion.”

Representative from Welland Leanna Villella echoed Butters’ sentiment and said she would be voting her “conscious”, and thus against the appointment.  

Regional Councillor Bob Gale joined the debate: “…the City of St. Catharines did not follow their own policy, a policy put in place to stop, and I want to emphasize, to stop, nepotism, cronyism, and favouritism in the filling of a vacant Council seat. The people of St. Catharines have spoken by casting their ballots… I cannot support a process that deviates from the democratic will of the people.”

While a majority of regional councillors voted to accept St. Catharines’ recommendation and ultimately appointed Mat Siscoe, it appears that this is not the end of the debate, but only the beginning.  

Ed Smith warned Regional Council, “Obviously, the ensuing investigations will take time, but they will take place.”

When contacted by The Niagara Independent, Mike Britton – who should have received the appointment based on policy and precedent – responded, “Today the principles of democracy, fairness, and justice have taken a hit. That said, I am encouraged by the outpouring of support from residents seeking to protect Niagara’s democratic values. To that end, all options will be explored and I will have more to say in the coming days”.

Only six regional councillors voted to oppose the recommendation from the City of St. Catharines to appoint Mat Siscoe. Those councillors were: Leanna Villella from Welland, Bob Gale from Niagara Falls, Marvin Junkin from Pelham, Dave Bylsma from West Lincoln, Barbara Butters from Port Colborne, and Tim Whalen from Thorold. 

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