Derek Robertson outside of Paul Watson's office in Chatham on March 18, 2019. (Photo by Allanah Wills)

Conflict between integrity commissioner and former councillor rages on

The tension between former councillor Derek Robertson and Chatham Kent’s integrity commissioner is showing no signs of slowing down.

Integrity Commissioner Paul Watson delivered an interim report at Monday night’s council meeting in Chatham citing a “serious breach of protocol” during his investigation into a complaint made against Robertson. Watson also fired back at claims that have been made by Robertson regarding how Watson has handled the investigation.

The investigation stems from a complaint made by former mayor Randy Hope who claims Robertson misused his authority as a councillor. He alleged Roberston had a personal relationship with a local businessman who was looking to open a business in Chatham and then tried to give the man special treatment to help him make it easier for him to get a building permit.

Robertson and his lawyer, Steve Pickard, deny this claim and said that Watson botched the investigation by completely leaving Robertson out of the interview process. They believe Watson is too biased to conduct the investigation and have urged him to remove himself from it.

In Watson’s report on Monday, he alleged Robertson released information about his investigation to the media without his consent and while the investigation was still preliminary.

Robertson was hoping to give a verbal response to Watson’s report at the council meeting but he was shut down. Councillors voted 12-5 against letting Robertson give a deputation regarding Watson’s report and breach of protocol claim.

Mayor Darrin Canniff, as well as councillors Aaron Hall, Brock McGregor, Karen Kirkwood-Whyte, and Melissa Harrigan, were those who voted in favour of Robertson giving a deputation.

Robertson told Blackburn News that in the eight years that he served on council, not once did they “shut down a voice” and refuse someone to speak.

“I think council is part of the problem now,” Robertson said. “There are five strong council members here tonight that used their voice appropriately and the rest of the council became part of this lingering conspiracy.”

Robertson said he signed up on time to be added on the list of speakers for the night. Pickard was also signed up as a speaker. According to Pickard, the reason Robertson was not allowed to speak was because, with Pickard already slated to speak on his behalf, it would be considered as Robertson getting to speak twice.  The rules state that anyone wishing to give a deputation during council is allowed one five minute time slot.

While addressing council, Pickard said that because Robertson is the person the investigation is about, he has every right to release information about it to the media.

“I’m not aware of any protocol that applies to me or Mr. Robertson that Mr. Watson is claiming in his report. Obviously, the protocol in the code of conduct applies to the integrity commissioner and it sets out what he’s obliged to do but it doesn’t set out anything the respondent is obliged to do,” said Pickard.

A copy of Robertson’s prepared statement he was planning to deliver, obtained by Blackburn News, states: “Mr. Watson’s claim that there has been a serious breach of protocol is the only statement that I agree with… Mr. Watson has not followed the procedure set forth by the code, has not presented matters to council in an honest manner and failed to demonstrate impartiality and neutrality.”

Watson, who was not in attendance, rebutted these claims in his report and argued that he closely followed the required steps in handling an integrity complaint, including encouraging Hope to resolve the matter informally and conducting a preliminary investigation to ensure that the complaint was serious enough to pursue. He also said that he made Robertson aware of the report shortly after receiving it on November 6 and the two were in email contact with each other during the investigation.

In the interim report, Watson also took issue with that fact that Robertson held a press conference without his knowledge immediately following a meeting between the three men on March 18. During the conference, Robertson repeatedly claimed that he had to beg Watson for a meeting. Watson denied those claims, calling them false statements.

Although Watson didn’t initially interview Robertson, he said he interviewed and received numerous emails from people that were relevant to the investigation. Watson then contacted Pickard on February 13 saying he would be willing to talk to Robertson. However, Robertson has claimed Watson only decided to interview him after getting pressure from municipal staff to do so.

“Only after the chief legal officer spoke to him about his broken process did he consider interviewing me. That’s not right.  It’s not fair, it’s not partial and that what he was chosen to do, be a fair, partial and neutral party,” said Robertson.

As far as removing himself from the investigation, Watson said he wasn’t going to debate with Robertson and Pickard on the matter and he has a duty to conduct the investigation independently, no matter how difficult it may be.

“If he is of the opinion that he can prove bias, then he has the right to apply to the court to request determination as to whether or not I am biased and to request other relief. He has not done so. Instead, he has released my preliminary report to the media without my consent before I could complete the report and report to council,” Watson said in his report.

Watson’s preliminary report concludes that he still needs to investigate several legal issues before the investigation into the complaint can be formally complete.

He estimated that the final report will be ready to be delivered to council within the next 30 to 45 days.