Former mayor addresses Springwater Council on compliance audit

For immediate release 

See Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rvEXMS128IQ&t=7s

MIDHURST – May 2 2019 – Springwater failed to explore options to control runaway costs incurred by its compliance audit committee, former mayor Bill French told Township  Council yesterday. 

Ten charges relating to French’s 2014 election expenses were withdrawn April 17. The  alleged non-compliances, totalling $1,100, were described by the prosecutor in an April 25 report to council as of a  ‘relatively minor nature.”  French was $5,000 under his legal spending limit. The cost to the township has been $310,000 so far.

French rejected earlier statements made by Mayor Don Allen and CAO Robert Brindley that the township was unable to control the committee’s expenses.

He noted that, during the protracted committee process, two judges expressed concern at the escalating costs and suggested options for the township.

“I believe a court would have taken seriously concerns expressed by the township regarding the cost to ratepayers and may have ordered a reasonable resolution that would have been fair to all parties,” French said.

 He also refuted a claim by Brindley that he was responsible for delays and therefore most of the costs incurred by the township. “The actions of others delayed proceedings from March of 2016 to December 2017 or 20 months,” he said.

French noted that while in office – he was defeated last October – he was prohibited by the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act from any discussion with his council colleagues on the matter and so this was the first time he was able to share his views. 

Text of Bill French delegation to Springwater Council – May 1 2019 

Mayor Allen, Members of Council. Thank you for allowing me to address you this evening. ……..First, some significant milestones as noted on the slide:

January of 2017; Madam Justice Frances Kiteley noted that the Compliance Audit matter was developing a life of its own and advised the parties to conference with Assistant Chief Justice Frank Marrocco and seek a less expensive and early resolution in May of that year.

January of 2018; Madam Justice Ann Molloy, on behalf of the tribunal, noted in her decision, that the Compliance Audit Committee misunderstood its role and that the Township might intervene if the costs were excessive. 

April 17th2019; all charges against me were withdrawn by the prosecutor.

This is the first time I have addressed Springwater Council on my compliance audit matter because, as Mayor during the last term, I recused myself from any meetings or discussion on my Compliance Audit as required under the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act. On those occasions I passed the chair to a member of Council.

I only come forward because my situation was discussed in open Council in an Update at the April 3 Council meeting when it was still an active legal matter. Prior to that, my Compliance Audit had only been discussed in Closed session – as it was a legal matter. Whether intended or not, I consider aspects of the update to have been an attack on my character, reputation and integrity, and as such, I must respond. Council is already in possession of my lawyer Phil Horgan’s comments on the update.

The issue I have with the update was the proposition that FIRST, – I was responsible for most of the over $310,000 of Township costs and SECONDLY, – that the Township could do nothing to curb the spending. I disagree.

I launched a Judicial Review Application in November 2015 challenging the decision of the Compliance Audit Committee’s failure to take action on the Grant Thornton Auditor Report in the 30 day time frame under the Act and also the unprecedented appointment of a second audit.  There is no other case in the history of compliance audits where the first audit has been discarded and another one commissioned. We also now know there was no significant difference between the findings of the two audits as both noted minor discrepancies, but still $5,000 under the spending limit.

We expected my JR to be heard in June or July of 2016, rather than 18 months later in December of 2017. Lawyer Harold Elston, acting for the Township, fully supported my application and concurred with my lawyer Renatta Austin, that the Compliance Audit Committee had exceeded its jurisdiction. 

So, if I did not cause the significant delays what happened? 

Dan McLean, through his lawyer Mr. Jack Siegel, launched a separate Judicial Review to challenge the original appointment of Grant Thornton, but Mr McLean did not file his Notice until July of 2016. That application became a moot point after the Superior Court decision in January 2017. Madam Justice Frances Kiteley supported Grant Thornton’s motion to dismiss the application, upholding that the Committee, not Grant Thornton, were the decision makers on whether charges should be laid. 

Madam Kiteley’s order to dismiss Mr. McLean’s appeal of the motion was supported by both the Township and myself, but was opposed by the Compliance Audit Committee. 

Justice Kiteley expressed concern that this matter was costing everyone a lot of money and that the parties should consider some alternate course of action. In her decision she wrote and I quote, “All of this is unfolding at considerable expense to the parties and to the ratepayers. I encourage all counsel and the parties to consider whether a judicial settlement conference with A.C.J. (Assistant Chief Justice) Marrocco (who has agreed to make himself available for that purpose) might lead to an earlier and less expensive resolution.” 

Under the auspices of Justice Marrocco, a settlement conference was held in May 2017 with all the parties present. Justice Marrocco proposed an early resolution, which was acceptable to Mr. McLean and I, but lacked full consensus. 

In the decision of my JR, Justice Ann Molloy,- speaking for the tribunal, – noted in her decision -that the Compliance Audit Committee misunderstood their role and I quote, “A Tribunal ought not to compromise its neutrality and impartiality – by taking an active position to one or more of the parties that appeared before it”.

If the Compliance Audit Committee had not directed their lawyerto argue againstin both the Grant Thornton case and at my JR – or – if they had agreed to the course of action proposed by Justice Marrocco back in May 2017 – how much money and time might have been saved by the Township? 

The update on April 3 failed to provide this information, which cast me in an unfavourable light. The update was anything but evenhanded. As noted on the slide, the actions of others, – not me, – delayed proceedings 20 months.

The update stated that this Council and Administration could do nothing to stop the increasing costs, so you must also be saying, that if the costs had escalated to a million dollars, there was nothing you could have done? Does that make any sense?

The Township might have applied for its own Judicial Review when the Compliance Audit Committee exceeded its mandate in Oct 2015. I believe a court would have taken seriously – concerns expressed by the township regarding the cost to ratepayers, and may have ordered a resolution that would have been fair to all parties.

That was certainly indicated by Justice Molloy in her decision, which was referenced in the update. In the same sentence that was noted in your update, Justice Molloy stated an exception, and I will quote, “unless there was some issue such as excessive spending by the Committee that might have been of direct interest to the Township.” Do you not think $310,000 is excessive and a direct interest to the Township?That probably would have paid for most of the road construction that Mr. Spring just noted in his delegation. Since 20 of the 24 months of delays were created by other parties,- I also suggest that most of the $200,000 in extra legal costs,- noted in the update, – were caused by other parties, not me.

Since my personal matter was brought into this chamber, in an open – rather, than closed session, I ask Council to acknowledge that the update provided on April 3 lacked balance and that my position be given equal weight in any future communications on this matter. I would also ask that the letter from Phil Horgan in response to the update, be posted as Correspondence at the earliest convenience. 

It may be appropriate for the Township to also support our petition on Change.org to ask the province to “End misuse of the Municipal Elections Act” which to date has garnered almost a 1,000 signatures.  Thank You for listening and I invite questions.

News release from the Justice for Bill French committee

Former Springwater mayor Bill French no longer faces any charges under the Municipal Elections Act. All 10 charges were dropped today in Barrie Provincial Offences Court.

“A trial is no longer necessary nor in the interests of justice,” prosecutor Angela Severson told the court.

French said he feels that statement “sums it all up.”

As part of an agreed resolution, French accepted responsibility for the alleged contraventions and volunteered to donate $2,000 to the Elmvale and District food bank.

“Mr. French has long acknowledged that bookkeeping errors were made in his post-campaign filing,” French’s lawyer Phil Horgan said in a statement.  “By withdrawing the charges, no finding of guilt has been made.  But it should be noted that Bill French was quite prepared to defend all of the charges.”

The matter, which has dragged on for almost four years and cost the Township of Springwater in excess of $310,000, was concluded in less than 10 minutes.

Horgan said the Municipal Elections Act does not mandate perfect compliance, but rather that candidates take all reasonable steps to comply.  “Mr. French believed that he did so.  He retained an expert accountant to assist in his MEA filing from the 2014 campaign. There was no effort to deceive voters, or conceal expenses, as acknowledged by the auditors involved. “

In addition, “the quantum of the errors was minimal, and had no bearing on the overall spending limits of his campaign ($15,214.72), for which Bill French stayed well within the allowed limit ($20,363.90),” Horgan said, adding: “in the interests of resolving the proceedings, which were beneficial neither to Mr. French nor to the Springwater taxpayers who were paying the prosecution’s costs, Mr. French was willing to acknowledge some mistakes, and make a charitable donation to resolve the file.”

French read out a prepared statement to a small crowd of supporters outside the courtroom.

“From Day One, I acknowledged there were some minor errors and omissions in my 2014 Election filing,” he said. “I still firmly believe the Compliance Audit Committee erred in approving the compliance audit in the first place as the nature of my minor filing errors did not warrant it.

“The costs to the Township are well in excess of $310,000 today. I expect that when all the bills are paid it will be much more. Just think of what could have been done with that wasted money.

“To my surprise, certain actors inside and outside the township were able to use the Municipal Elections Act as a weapon and succeeded in having me defeated in the 2018 election by 82 votes which was their ultimate goal.”

“We’re glad this issue of the charges against Bill has been resolved,” said Bernard Pope of the Justice for Bill French committee, adding, that the committee came together “because we know him to be an honest man and a conscientious public servant.”

The committee launched a petition calling for a review of the Municipal Elections Act and asking Springwater Township to take whatever action might be appropriate to end the prosecution. More than 800 people have signed.

The committee is also raising funds to assist French in defraying legal costs that have risen to $65,000.

“We urge people who are concerned about what happened to sign the petition and we would be honoured to accept donations,” Pope said. (See the Justice for Bill French website for more information.)

All Charges Withdrawn

After a grueling 4 years of legal gymnastics, I am pleased we were able to finally resolve this matter. I think the withdrawal of all charges says it all and is in the best interest of justice.”

From day one, I acknowledged there were some minor errors and omissions in my 2014 Election filing. I still firmly believe the Compliance Audit Committee erred in approving the Compliance Audit in the first place as the nature of my minor filing errors did not warrant it. The costs to the Township is well in excess of $310,000 today. I expect that when all the bills are paid it will be much more. Just think of what could have been done with that wasted taxpayer money.

To my surprise, certain actors inside and outside the Township were able to use the Municipal Election Act as a weapon and succeeded in having me defeated in the 2018 election by 82 votes which was their ultimate goal.

Most people know I do not dwell much on the past. Going forward, I plan to be a loud voice for the people of Springwater as I have been for the last 15 years. I enjoyed my term as Mayor and I am very proud of the initiatives we were able to launch in that 4 year time frame. The last council under my leadership set a clear vision and foundation for the future.

My wife and I have supported the Elmvale and District Food Bank in recent years. Lorraine hosted an afternoon tea during the 150th Anniversary in 2017 and raised over $1,000 for the cause. Lorraine has also donated gift cards to the Food Bank at Christmas, so it is appropriate that to bring this matter to an end, that the Elmvale and District Food Bank be the recipient of my $2,000 donation as a gesture of my goodwill.

And since I purposely asked for God’s blessing on everyone at the many functions I attended as Mayor, I today also thank God for staying close to me, my family and friends and giving us comfort through what can only be considered a very interesting journey.

Response to Council Meeting Update on Compliance Audit

I was quite surprised at the information that was provided to Council and the public at the April 3 Council meeting and someone awestruck that it was not on the Agenda yet some members of public and council were aware of what would transpire. I will respond separately in due time but this link provides a good overview.

Compliance Audit Legal Update

About 40 people attended the pre-trial conference today at the Provincial Offences Court in Barrie. Most of the hearing took place behind closed doors and the discussions are confidential. The parties agreed to another pre-trial teleconference in mid April to set the stage for either an agreed resolution or proceeding to trial. A recent FOI request to the Township has revealed that since this matter commenced in 2015, the Township has paid out over $310,000 to Township and Compliance Audit Committee legal representation, Committee Member per diems and various Auditing fees, and we are not done yet. The Township does not pay for the legal expenses of Bill French which he must bear on his own. The question that needs to be posed, “How is advancing this matter, at such great cost to the taxpayer, in the public interest?”

Campaign Launched (Click for Details)

For immediate release

Campaign launched to support former Springwater mayor on compliance audit injustice

ELMVALE — A citizens’ committee has launched a campaign to address the misuse of the Municipal Elections Act which resulted in 10 charges of alleged non-compliance against former Springwater mayor Bill French.

“We believe Bill has been the target of an immense injustice,” said Kate Harries, a member of the Justice for Bill French committee. “We do not want this to set a precedent that could taint elections across Ontario.”

French’s 2014 municipal campaign spending came in at $5,000 under his $20,000 spending limit. After three audits, non-compliances involving some $1,000 were identified.

“These were clearly not part of an effort to conceal or gain an unfair advantage – but the result of inadvertent error, which the legislation allows for,” she said.

Harries said this is a matter that should be of concern across Ontario. “Any person elected to public office is at risk of facing huge costs as a result of having a compliance audit committee come after them for minor infractions.”

“All this has cost Springwater taxpayers over $200,000, and Bill French has spend $55,000 in defending himself against what we view as a politically motivated prosecution,” she said.

French’s lawyer Phil Horgan said Springwater taxpayers should question whether the ongoing pursuit of Bill French is in the “public interest.”

“Previous cases for spending irregularities have been excused for greater sins,” Horgan said. “The excessive spending by Toronto Mayor Rob Ford in 2010 ($40,000 alleged over the $1.3 million spending limit) was not pursued.  Sudbury Mayor Brian Biggar was excused on charges of improper fundraising in 2014.”

Horgan noted that the Springwater-Oro-Medonte compliance audit committee from 2014 no longer exists, owing to the passage of time.  “Yet these charges over what are essentially minor bookkeeping entries continue to be pursued as against Bill French,” he said. “Bill intends to defend himself.”

Horgan added that a preliminary question of law will need to be answered, as to whether the Springwater Council can continue this prosecution, “when the governing legislation clearly intended that no municipal council be allowed to pursue such prosecutions in the first place, given the obvious risk of political interference.”

And, he said, “one need only be reminded that our prime minister is facing a related set of questions on prosecutorial independence.”

The Justice for Bill French committee has set up a website (Google Justice for Bill French) with a petition calling on:

  • The Province of Ontario to re-examine the Municipal Elections Act to determine what limits or changes should be made in relation to the power and conduct of compliance audit committees, to ensure that the Act is applied fairly and appropriately, and on
  • Springwater Township Council to take whatever action it considers appropriate to end this costly prosecution.

The committee is also soliciting donations to help French with his legal costs.

The next court date in this case is Thursday March 28 at 1 p.m. at the provincial court, 45 Cedar Pointe Drive, Barrie.

For more information email justiceforbillfrench@gmail.com