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City councillors riled after vote overturned by “technical glitches”

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Troy Shantz

Some city councillors are crying foul after a decision they approved was reversed suddenly and without a vote two days later.

In a 5-3 vote Monday, council agreed to ask Bluewater Power to reduce its operating costs by cutting staff travel, advertising and promotions until 2022.

Sarnia is the largest shareholder of the utility, which said last month its dividend to city taxpayers would be reduced by $200,000 because COVID-19.

But on Wednesday, the city clerk’s office announced the council meeting, carried live on Zoom, had “technical glitches” that resulted in vote confusion.

According to the email, a councillor who replied “agreed” when the vote was taken had actually said “disagreed.” The result: a 4-4 tie, Stark’s motion failed, and the decision was overturned, the clerk’s office said.

Stark, who has been pushing for greater accountability from Bluewater Power, is not happy.

“It’s unprecedented,” he said. “You can’t change any vote, and you certainly can’t change a recorded vote without having a reconsideration.”

City solicitor Sutheat Tim, who is covering for clerk Dianne Gould-Brown while on medical leave, said he called Coun. Dave Boushy when his recorded vote appeared at odds with his position during the debate.

Audio and other technical problems with the Zoom online conferencing software have been common during council meetings, and Tim believed Boushy’s verbal vote was distorted.

“There’s no question that what we heard was ‘agree,’ but my executive assistant and I did look at the video and (Boushy) seemed to have mouthed something prior to hearing the ‘agree,’” Tim said. “We felt it was safer to just call back Coun. Boushy and confirm with him what his intent actually was.”

Tim acknowledged Boushy was the only councillor he contacted, and only for that one particular vote.

Boushy told The Journal he doesn’t really know what happened.

“I didn’t know how exactly the vote went,” the 88-year-old veteran councillor said. “We were having trouble with the system and I didn’t know exactly how everyone voted. All I know is I voted ‘no.’”

Coun. Nathan Colquhoun said Coun. Boushy clearly voted in favour of the motion. He questions the legality of administrators reversing a council decision after the fact.

“This situation shows a flagrant disregard for the values and guidelines that all of us have agreed to and are expected to follow,” he said.

“It’s always frustrating when due process is ignored or manipulated in order to achieve a private agenda, and that is exactly what appears to be happening here.”

Only eight of nine councillors voted after Coun. Bill Dennis, who is married to Bluewater Power CEO Janice McMichael-Dennis, declared a conflict of interest.

Colquhoun also called out Mayor Mike Bradley for participating in a debate without yielding the chair.

Shortly before the vote, Bradley offered stern words about political interference in Bluewater Power.

“This corporation was set up very successfully, and I was there at the creation. And it was supposed to be apolitical and not have interference from council. I have never seen a motion in 20 years do that,” Bradley said. “It may be recommendations, but there’s a unveiled threat to that.”

Starks motion, in addition to asking for spending cuts at Bluewater Power, had sought financial information about the utility, which is 86.5% owned by the city.

The company provided a 100-page audit, but didn’t divulge the manager salaries and benefits.

“The taxpayers should have a right to that information,” Stark said. “There has to be some method to make sure that the expenses that are being incurred by that particular company are legitimate.”

Bluewater Power CEO Janice McMichael-Dennis told The Journal 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.

When it was launched 20 years ago, Sarnia and the utility’s five other municipal shareholders decided the company should be operated at “arms length” from the owners, McMichael-Dennis said, noting the shareholders have no operational or administrative control.

She said Bluewater Power had already re-opened this year’s budget and cut almost $1 million in spending in response o the pandemic, which has reduced demand and left some customers struggling to pay bills.

“If there are ever any questions about numbers, or questions about numbers going on, (and) if it’s possible for us to get that information out there, we always do,” she said.

Tim said alternatives to Zoom are being explored.

The council meeting video is available at

https://www.facebook.com/cityofsarnia/videos/2654965184822274

The debate and vote begin at the 1:23:20 mark.

 

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