City council deadlocked over voting snafu, Bluewater Power

City Hall

Troy Shantz

Sarnia’s CAO will investigate a city council vote reversal that opponents say is murky and undemocratic.

Chris Carter’s offer was unanimously accepted after Coun. Nathan Colquhoun sought to have an outside legal investigation into what transpired.

“I can look after this matter and report back in a very sensitive way financially, and also provide the information that’s required,” Carter told the June 22 council meeting.

In a 5-3 vote on June 1 council had agreed to ask Bluewater Power to reduce its operating costs by cutting staff travel, advertising and promotions.

But two days later the city clerk’s office issued a statement saying that the meeting, carried live on Zoom, had “technical glitches” that resulted in voting confusion.

Coun. Dave Boushy, who is heard to say “agreed” on the audio when the vote was taken, had actually said “disagreed,” the clerk’s office said after consulting with the councillor.

The acting clerk’s decision to reverse his vote created a 4-4 tie, thereby overturning council’s decision. Boushy did not flag his miscounted vote during the meeting, and he said later he didn’t know what had happened.

Coun. Mike Stark, who requested the cost cutting at Bluewater Power, wasn’t satisfied with the explanation.

“This is a fundamental cornerstone of democracy, and that is transparency,” he said. “And this whole motion deals with the issue of transparency. If we don’t pursue this we are not being true to the values of democracy, and it’s important that we send the message to the public that we are entirely transparent.”

Three attempts to revisit the vote Monday were deadlocked 4-4, with councillors Stark, Colquhoun, Terry Burrell and Brian White in favour; and Boushy, Mayor Mike Bradley, Margaret Bird and George Vandenberg opposed.

Coun. Bill Dennis declared a conflict and did not vote. Dennis is married to Bluewater Power CEO Janice McMichael-Dennis.

Mayor Bradley, who tried to hurry proceedings along, warned about the cost of hiring outside legal help to investigate.

“The last time you sent something out it cost us $17,000 to a law firm,” he said.

Carter said he would present his findings on July 13.

Sarnia is the largest shareholder of Bluewater Power, which has said its dividend to city taxpayers will be reduced by $200,000 because of COVID-19.

In response, Stark sought spending cuts and detailed financial information from the utility, which is 86.5% owned by Sarnia.

The company provided a 100-page audit, but did not divulge manager salaries and benefits, information Stark believes taxpayers have a right to see.

Bluewater Power CEO Janice McMichael-Dennis has said the company isn’t subject to the Public Sector Salary Disclosure Act, which requires public bodies to publish a list of employees earning more than $100,000 annually.