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Niagara Falls
Sunday, March 3, 2024
Analysis: Council responses to questions about relationships
Lord Mayor Gary Zalepa. File Photo
Deputy Mayor Erwin Wiens. File Photo
Coun. Tim Balasiuk. File Photo
Coun. Gary Burroughs. File Photo
Coun. Wendy Cheropita. File Photo
Coun. Maria Mavridis. File Photo
Coun. Sandra O'Connor. File Photo
Coun. Nick Ruller. File Photo
Coin. Adriana Vizzari. File Photo

In the aftermath of a controversial incident in which a developer gave a town councillor an envelope containing $10,000 in cash, The Lake Report posed a detailed series of questions to all members of Niagara-on-the-Lake council and regional Coun. Andrea Kaiser about their relationships and interactions with people and companies.

Under normal circumstances, such questions might be considered extremely intrusive, but given that councillors are elected to represent the public – and in the interests of accountability and transparency – we felt the questions were valid and fair.

On March 25, we sent the questions to all NOTL’s elected municipal officials and asked for responses by March 31.

After some discussion among town councillors and the mayor, they decided Lord Mayor Gary Zalepa would respond on behalf of all council members, but that individual councillors were free to submit their own comments if they wished.

Some councillors opted to answer and some did not. In most instances, the responses were very general and many did not answer the specific questions posed.

Immediately after receiving the mayor’s response on behalf of council on March 30, we thanked him for his submission but advised that it didn’t deal with the specifics of the questions. No further response was received from him.

Here are the questions we asked of council members:

1. Do you have a personal, private or business relationship with anyone or any company that has or may have business before the Town of NOTL? Please provide details, briefly.

2. Have you ever met privately with any person (including developers) having business with the Town of NOTL, discussed town matters with them in a venue other than a council or committee meeting? Who and why?

3. In your time as a councillor, have you ever declared a conflict of interest due to a personal, business or professional relationship you have with anyone or any company that has or may have business before the Town of NOTL? Please provide details, briefly.

4. Is there anything else that residents of NOTL should know about any of your interactions or relationships in your capacity as an elected member of council?

With the mayor responding to our questions on behalf of council, regional Coun. Andrea Kaiser and town Coun. Tim Balasiuk didn’t submit responses. Coun. Wendy Cheropita said she was content with the mayor’s response. Coun. Maria Mavridis posted comments on her public blog and we have included the relevant information below.

As well, information about gifts and other benefits accepted by councillors is posted under “Disclosures and Conflict of Interest” on the town’s website.

Here are the answers received to our questions.

Lord Mayor Gary Zalepa

Thank you for the role local media such as The Lake Report has in our community. The benefits of a local, diligent, well-resourced news media are strongly supported.

As lord mayor, I have chosen to respond on behalf of members of council. Should members of council wish to respond individually that is up to their discretion.

Members of council are residents and elected officials of Niagara-on-the-Lake, representing over 18,000 people. As members of the community, we have many relationships and a broad range of interactions with many residents, businesses, and community organizations.

As lord mayor, I meet with all of the above regularly regarding matters of public interest. This was true for my schedule while I was both a town and regional councillor. I expect that most members of council would share a similar experience.

Each member of council has a personal obligation to ensure that they act in compliance with all laws, the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act and the code of conduct. We take this responsibility very seriously.

I have declared a conflict in several matters over my 10-plus years as an elected council member.

I will not review or list those individual occurrences, as they are a matter of public record and available for any person to review. This fact would be the same for members of council as well.

Obviously, there will be variations amongst council members depending on duration of their terms.

*****

Coun. Erwin Wiens
Deputy lord mayor

Members of council are residents and elected officials of Niagara-on-the-Lake, a town of over 18,000 people.

Growing up in Niagara-on-the-Lake, raising a family, being a second-generation farmer, volunteering with many organizations and a council member, it is expected that I, like my colleagues, would have many relationships and a broad range of interactions with many residents, organizations and businesses in the community.

Each member of council has a personal obligation to ensure that they act in compliance with all laws, the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act and the code of conduct.

As a councillor, I take this responsibility seriously. All declared conflicts are a matter of public record and available for review.

*****

Coun. Gary Burroughs

I did meet with a developer on March 4, (not March 11), at his request at Two Sisters. That meeting is currently under review by Niagara Regional Police so no further comment.

In general, I am happy to meet with any resident at their request to discuss issues they have. Typically, we either meet at Tim Hortons or the NOTL Community Centre. I buy my own coffee. These meetings usually take up to an hour. Rarely is anyone else in attendance.

I have been involved with many groups over the years, as far back as chairing the Shaw Festival in 1982-83, and the Niagara Foundation where I was a board member for 25 years.

I do try to attend the foundation’s cocktail parties each year and I always pay my own way.

Typically, over the years, very few developers have requested to have a meeting outside our regular committee structure.

Coun. Wendy Cheropita

I assume that by now you have received the lord mayor’s response to your request.

As stated in the letter, the lord mayor has responded to you on behalf of council. I am fully supportive of the lord mayor’s response.

Coun. Maria Mavridis

This is an excerpt from her public blog:

When you put your name in to run for a seat in the municipality, you know that, should you be elected, you will make decisions that directly affect the daily lives of residents, families, local business and the community as a whole.

The key principles are integrity, accountability, respect, leadership and collaboration.

In return, you would expect the same from your constituents.

Representing a small town, you are well aware that being on town council means that:

*You will be out for dinner locally with friends or family and may be approached by a resident who has concerns, and your dinner will be interrupted for a few brief minutes.

*While at your daughter’s volleyball game, you will be approached by some other parents with their concerns and you will take the time to listen.

*Every week you will commit a few evenings for council meetings and prep.

What you aren’t aware of or expecting at the time you throw your name in is:

*The disrespectful emails you will receive because you didn’t vote the way one person wanted.

*Negative confrontation, while standing at the local coffee shop in line with your family.

*Local media demanding your autobiography.

*People showing up at your place of business and verbally attacking your family members.

*Being questioned on your intelligence.

*Your daughter coming home from school and saying a kid told her that her mother is in people’s pockets because that’s what they heard their parents say.

That is not OK.

When I ran for council, I promised to be honest, transparent and communicate with all.

Recently, The Lake Report sent a blanket email to all of council:

I did not respond to the email. Why, you ask?

The Lake Report along with other local papers have always been able to contact me directly for a phone interview, coffee interview, or to ask me to advertise for a local initiative.

After the blanket email, our mayor told us he would respond on behalf of all of council, so I respected that.

Had I responded, this would have been my response;

In my short time as a councillor, I have met with the following, in the presence of other council members to view presentations: Rainer Hummel, Peller Limited and many residents.

This is part of our job.

I have not declared conflict on anything, as I have not had any conflict to date.

My first week as an elected official, I contacted the integrity commissioner with all the details of my personal business and received clearance letters on all.

The one item that will come before council is 343 York Rd. and I will declare conflict on that specific location as it is my father’s land.

When you live, work, and breathe in the town you represent, and are an engaged member of the community for over 30 years, as I have been, of course you will be questioned. I promised to be transparent and honest. I have and will continue to do so.

I just ask that it be done with the same integrity and respect that is expected from me.

Coun. Sandra O’Connor

The lord mayor has responded on behalf of council as a whole and I will add some personal comments. I understand that you are giving us a platform for transparency, accountability and openness.

I do not have a personal, private or business relationship with anyone or any company that has business before the Town of NOTL. I cannot speculate on the future.

I have never personally met with any developer or their representative outside of official town meetings regarding town business.

I have never been in a position to declare conflict of interest.

*****

Coun. Nick Ruller

I have answered your questions to the best of my ability below.

  1. I don’t. However, as you can appreciate, I also don’t claim to be aware of every detail of the personal lives of those that I have a “personal” relationship with. Consequently, this answer is to the best of my knowledge.
  2. Yes, I have interacted with many individuals over the past several months, making it unreasonable to list all situations. These situations have included flooding concerns, short-term rental concerns, future development application concerns and general meet/greets, etc. My role as a town councillor is to be a representative, policy-maker, and steward. This is achieved through meaningful dialogue with constituents in order to ensure decisions are in the community’s best interests. With that being said, all interactions were in compliance with the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act and town council’s code of conduct.
  3. No.
  4. No.

    *****

    Coun. Adriana Vizzari

    I have never been in any such situation and have nothing to disclose in response to the questions asked.

    In fact, the notion of such meetings has concerned me since I started in my role on council. To ease this concern, and in an attempt to create an equitable process and more transparency in circumstances where a party – developer or otherwise – wants to meet with council to discuss town matters, I brought forward a motion on Dec. 20, 2022.

    The motion sought to eliminate private meetings and proposed that these meetings only take place during council or committee meetings, all of which are part of public record.

    The motion led to a lengthy staff report outlining the law in this area and several recommendations were made. I encourage residents, especially those looking to meet with council, to read through it.

 

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