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Decorum nosedives as councillors spar over KED-related emails

The end of Tuesday’s city council meeting centered on the backlash that came in response to the release of a Freedom of Information request and quickly devolved as Ward 2 Coun. Michael Vagnini talked over others and has his microphone briefly turned off
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Tom Davies Square.

Frustrated by a lack of decorum and actual decisions being made, Ward 9 Coun. Deb McIntosh walked out of Tuesday’s city council meeting several minutes early.

“Life is too short,” she told Sudbury.com the following day. “I’m tired of having my time wasted and I wasn’t going to stay.”

The councillor said that it was her first time walking out of a meeting since she was first elected to city council in 2014. She departed Tuesday’s meeting near the start of a heated argument regarding the contents of Kingsway Entertainment District -related documents from a recent Freedom of Information Act (FOI) request.

“I’m not going to sit here and listen to this,” she reflected after the fact. “We’re not making decisions, and this constant interrupting and talking over each other, I thought, ‘Nope.’”

The FOI request in question was made by anti-Kingsway Entertainment District activist Hazel Ecclestone, and resulted in the city awarding 1,655 pages of documents related to the contended project. Due to public interest in these documents, the city posted everything online earlier this week. 

The full document can be accessed by clicking here

The PDF file includes hundreds of pages of KED-related documents that have already been made public alongside a few hundred pages of internal emails regarding the project. 

Specifically, it follows through on Ecclestone’s request for correspondence between city Strategic Initiatives, Communications and Citizen Services director Ian Wood, CAO Ed Archer, land developer/Sudbury Wolves and Sudbury Five owner Dario Zulich and Gateway Casinos. Emailed correspondence between Ward 5 Coun. Robert Kirwan and Zulich was also requested.

As city council’s most vocal proponent for the KED, Kirwan is often singled out by those opposed to the project. In response to the FOI documents, Kirwan has been criticized for corresponding with Gateway Casinos – a point Mayor Brian Bigger called to question by asking who on council hasn’t reached out to the proponent of a project for information.

During the question period that capped Tuesday’s city council meeting, Ward 1 Coun. Mark Signoretti said that he was “shocked” to read some of the internal correspondence released via the FOI request, alleging that city CAO Ed Archer “disrespected citizens who were concerned about the KED.”

Anti-KED activists have taken to social media to express offense with some of the language Archer used in his emails with staff, particularly when he noted that the activists’ goal “remains the same – “to slow, and eventually stop, the work” at the KED.

“While it is infuriating that citizens would feel they have license to do this, here we are,” Archer continued in the email, urging the creation of a “strategy for countering the incessant attacks.”

During Tuesday’s meeting, Archer said that the messages being discussed lack the broader context required to issue any conclusions about his overall work.

“The messages that were the subject of the FOI request are simply a partial record of a much broader exchange of information that regularly occurs in any larger organization,” he said.

As for Signoretti raising questions about his performance as CAO, Archer said there is an established process the councillor has neglected to follow.

“[Signoretti] knows, like all members of council know, an appropriate step to take would be to call a closed meeting, raise a question about the CAO’s performance, and if it resorts to a discussion about my tenure, bring the question to a vote,” he said.

“I serve at the pleasure of council and will continue to do so as long as you want me to.”

Archer also suggested that Signoretti might be in breach of the city’s Code of Conduct in his failure to follow the proper procedure in publicly raising concerns about a municipal employee.

Decorum at Tuesday’s meeting took a nosedive when it became Ward 2 Coun. Michael Vagnini’s time to ask a question, during which his microphone was temporarily turned off in the midst of a meandering speech in which he failed to ask a question. It was during this kerfuffle that McIntosh walked out of the meeting.

“If I have a problem with a staff member … I deal with it directly,” not in a public meeting, McIntosh told Sudbury.com after the meeting, adding she hasn’t read the documents yet, she said she plans to.

Ward 10 Coun. Fern Cormier, who appeared agitated in council chambers as meeting decorum worsened, has also yet to do a deep dive into the documents. From what he has read thus far, he said “they certainly raise valid questions.”

“Everybody’s going to read different portions of it and bring a different lens,” he said. “We’ll put those to staff in the appropriate setting. There is a format to do that.”

For Kirwan, it’s much ado about nothing and part of a concerted effort by a handful of anti-KED activists to raise doubts about the project and delay progress.

“I haven’t seen anything that is concerning in the FOI documents,” he told Sudbury.com. “There is nothing that would call into question any of the decisions we’ve made.

“I think the real problem we’ve got now is that there’s a small group of people who are doing everything they can to convolute the whole KED process.”

City council has consistently voted in favour of the KED and for city administration to proceed with the project. They have established a timeline that would have shovels in the ground by the end of the year.

Opposition to the project has resulted in “grandstanding” in council chambers alongside other ongoing challenges, such as the spread of misinformation and personal attacks through social media, Bigger told Sudbury.com after the meeting.

“There’s an ongoing attempt to discredit and damage other people’s reputations, and I think it’s not right,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that we do have some individuals who have no regard for the impact on city employees. … It seems that their only goal is to criticize.”

Social media comments make up only a fraction of correspondence the city receives from the public, city Communications and Community Engagement director Marie Litalien told Sudbury.com, adding that phone calls to 311, open houses, virtual information sessions and other means of communication are also factored in.

“Most of the people who work in this space find the opportunity to serve rewarding,” Archer said, adding that there has been no evidence of personal or financial agendas among staff members or members of city council.

“Most social media comments that are negative and suggest some contrary perspective tend to be baseless innuendo at the end of the day, and I think that's important to call it out when that’s discovered.”

This kind of behaviour is in keeping with the times, Kirwan said, adding that in this day and age it appears “OK to make outrageous claims.”

“It’s OK to lie, it’s OK to make outrageous claims,” he said. “It’s almost as if this polarization is OK now.

“I guess it is what it is, and I would say we’re in a post-Trump era and that’s how people behave now. They say what they want, they don’t have to have any proof, they don’t have to have any facts, they are the experts and they attack character, and God help you if you try to argue against them. They go ballistic on you.”

Tyler Clarke covers city hall and political affairs for Sudbury.com.