In a vote of 9-3 following a heated exchange today, Ward 2 Coun. Michael Vagnini again faces disciplinary action at the hands of his colleagues around Greater Sudbury council chambers.
This time around, he has been saddled with a 40-day pay suspension for what city integrity commissioner Robert Swayze described in his report to city council as “vulgar and disrespectful behaviour” in contravention of the city’s Code of Conduct.
Vagnini has since apologized to deputy chief Jesse Oshell for his actions, though Swayze’s report notes he only did so after his lawyer, Michael Lacy, told him it would be best for him to do so.
The beleaguered councillor refuted this claim during tonight’s meeting by saying he enlisted the legal help of Lacy after the apology took place.
Vagnini also claimed he swore at Oshell twice, not the three times Swayze’s report outlines.
The city councillor was “frustrated and used language and shouldn’t have,” Lacy told city council during his remarks at this afternoon’s city council meeting at which sanctions against Vagnini were voted on.
At issue was Vagnini’s request for fire department equipment to be deployed for use at a longtime volunteer firefighter’s funeral, which Swayze’s report notes Oshell denied “because of the extreme cold and the risk of damage to the equipment.”
Swayze’s report alleges Vagnini responded to this information over the phone with the following comments to Oshell:
- “This is bull***t ***. Don’t play that f***ing game with me.”
- “F*** off, I can’t believe you won’t do this.”
- “Don’t try to tell me this s***.”
“He lost his composure, became frustrated when it appeared something that had been done for many other members of the fire department could not be done for this member of the community,” Lacy said.
“In the moment, they will say words or use rash words that express that frustration, but you have to have some allowance for human nature.”
Lacy denied Vagnini made any threats against Oshell in a subsequent phone call – a point Vagnini also shared during today’s meeting by clarifying “we were talking in general terms.”
As outlined in Swayze’s report, it’s claimed Vagnini informed Oshell it was in “the best interest of fire services and in (Oshell’s) best interests” that he recognize his apology so Oshell’s claim with the integrity commissioner could be withdrawn.
Swayze defended his claim that the words allegedly spoken to Oshell constituted a threat, and that the foul language Vagnini used against the deputy chief was “very disturbing.”
“He apologized, apparently on the advice of Mr. Lacy … but that does not free him up from being responsible for the foul language and lack of respect that he showed,” Swayze said.
The second complaint under consideration in Swayze’s report had to do with various points of alleged misinformation Vagnini shared about the city’s homeless community earlier this year. A YouTube video featuring various points which city staff members publicly refuted remains online.
During today’s meeting, Mayor Brian Bigger asked Vagnini to remove the video, which the councillor agreed to doing.
Expressing discomfort with the prospect of docking Vagnini’s pay, Ward 10 Coun. Fern Cormier presented a motion to merely reprimand Vagnini for his actions. Although it ended up failing to pass, the motion found support from Ward 1 Coun. Mark Signoretti, Ward 3 Coun. Gerry Montpellier, Ward 12 Coun. Joscelyn Landry-Altmann and Mayor Briran Bigger.
Resorting to the original resolution proposed by Swayze to dock Vagnini 40 days’ pay, only Montpellier, Cormier and Signoretti voted “no.”
The path to this final vote was far from straightforward, and included Vagnini’s political advisor, Tom Price, disrupting the meeting enough to result in Bigger declaring a brief recess. With Price’s interruptions continuing after the recess, he was escorted out of the meeting by security.
Price, who is a leading figure in the taxpayer watchdog group Our Towns Our City Institute, left the meeting while yelling about it being operated as a “kangaroo court.”
The community member’s strong words came while Ward 11 Coun. Bill Leduc raised concerns about Swayze’s investigation into his allegation Vagnini threatened his life over the phone – something Vagnini “categorically” denied and which North Bay Police Service determined there were “insufficient grounds” to proceed with charges.
Despite Swayze coming to a similar conclusion (despite, as Leduc noted, neglecting to contact any of the witnesses Leduc put forward) the integrity commissioner included this accusation in his report.
“It becomes a salted well when it’s in there,” Cormier said, questioning why an allegation not to be considered as part of Swayze’s recommendation to council would be included in the report.
It pulls a thread “that has nothing to do with what we’re talking about here,” Cormier said – a point Montpellier also shared during remarks in which he questioned the integrity of the city’s integrity commissioner, whom Montpellier said routinely falls short in his work.
“I’m not going to respond to that,” Swayze said. “I stand by everything I’ve said.”
Following city council’s 9-3 vote to dock his pay by 40 days, Vagnini thanked his colleagues for their work.
“The same amount you’re taking away from me for the next 40 days, I will be donating it to charity … out of my pocket, not out of council’s expense accounts or anything of that nature,” Vagnini said.
“So thank you very much, I really appreciate the time that you took to make the decision on my income. Thank you.”
Vagnini left today’s meeting as soon as the discussion regarding the integrity commissioner report on his behaviour had been addressed, which was bumped up as the first item addressed on the agenda. As he was leaving, he clarified to Sudbury.com it had to do with a family matter and nothing to do with city council’s decision.
In February, city council voted 9-2 to remove Vagnini from the police board, which came in response to Vagnini’s alleged misinformation about the city’s homeless community and an inaccurate belief that he, as a member of the police board, was unable to phone 911.
Tyler Clarke covers city hall and political affairs for Sudbury.com.