By Barrhaven Independent Staff
The City of Ottawa Integrity Commissioner says Barrhaven councillor Jan Harder should be removed as chair of the city’s planning committee after violating the councillor code of conduct.
In a 101-page report released Friday, Integrity Commissioner Robert Marleau said Harder violated the councillor code of conduct by hiring Alison Stirling (now Clarke), daughter of developer Jack Stirling, who has played a key role in many development issues.
Mr. Stirling, who was Nepean’s planning commissioner and also went to work as Minto’s vice-president of development for a number of years, has most recently been involved as a consultant for owners of the South Merivale Business Park, which just weeks ago received approval for rezoning amendments to allow for a transport truck terminal and warehouse to be built on the site. Stirling was also recently hired to be a consultant for the Stonebridge Golf Course working group, when a successful application was brought forward to develop on a small portion of the course. Stirling also served on the council-appointed planning advisory committee from March 2018, until he resigned in January 2021.
Harder violated Section 4 of the code by hiring Allison Stirling, according to the report, and Section 13 for gifts, benefits and hospitality.
An investigation was launched by the integrity commissioner on October 7, 2020, after a complaint was filed by a member of the public, who cited a “triangular” relationship between Harder and the Stirling family. The complainant said by Harder hiring Clarke, alongside the councillor’s long-standing relationship with her father Jack Stirling, it provided a real advantage to The Stirling Group.
The services of an independent investigator were sought to complete the investigation, and hundreds of electronic records — including e-mails and documents pertaining to related planning applications — were reviewed. Because of the pandemic, interviews with Stirling, Harder, Clarke, and a subject matter expert, were all conducted remotely.
“The formal complaint alleged that Councillor Harder entered into an inappropriate employment relationship with Alison Clarke which provided an advantage to Jack Stirling and The Stirling Group,” Marleau wrote in his report. “In broad terms, my findings on the nature of the employment and contract affiliations detailed herein speak to a necessity for transparency in the relationship between elected municipal public office holders and professionals in the planning and development business in the City of Ottawa.”
According to the report, Harder told investigators she has known the Stirling family since the late 1990’s. Harder claimed she first met Jack Stirling when he was planner for the City of Nepean and she was a newly-elected councillor. Despite Harder’s relationship with Mr. Stirling spanning over two decades, she did not know his daughter personally.
“She (councillor Harder) also indicated that prior to Ms. Clarke commencing to work for her in 2017, she only knew Ms. Clarke through information provided by Mr. Stirling, in normal conversation about mutual families,” wrote Marleau. “In the summer of 2017, Councillor Harder met Ms. Clarke while Ms. Clarke and her father were present together at the City Hall’s cafeteria. Councillor Harder confirmed attending Ms. Clarke’s wedding in 2019.”
Clarke worked for Harder as an employee from August 2017 to July 2018, according to the report, and was first made aware of a planning assistant position in the councillor’s office after running into Harder in the city hall cafeteria following a meeting. Clarke had just started working at Stirling Group and was preparing to eventually take over the family business, but left that position to work for Harder and gain new planning skills.
After leaving Harder’s office, Clarke returned to Stirling Group and worked as a consultant for the Barrhaven councillor from November 2018 to October 2019, and from March 2020 to February 2021. A large portion of her role was to provide briefings on reports. The group was paid $3,000 a month, working out to a roughly $36,000 per year contract. A third contract for the same yearly sum was signed on March 18 of this year, but the integrity commissioner didn’t conclude that because his investigation was coming to an end.
During the portion of time between contract one and two, Harder said she would often call Mr. Stirling and Clarke for planning advice, “free of charge.” Clarke also provided six briefing notes during this time.
“I get free service from Jack, and a few others, anytime I want,” Harder told investigators, according to the report. “This is the thing. It formalizes the relationship having that contract, it’s important to me to have the quality of the briefing notes that I have from Alison, but that’s the extent that Alison’s role is. Jack, just like [name of other individual removed], I’ve called him on some pretty significant issues and he has – because we have a relationship and he’s so right about the, the size of the, the fish swimming around in the planning pool, really in the City, OK?”
Marleau’s recommendations to council are that they remove Harder from the planning committee — a position she has chaired for seven years — as well as the board of the Ottawa Community Lands Development Corp., and dock her pay for 15 days. He said “strict sanctions are warranted.”
Harder has been Barrhaven’s city councillor for 24 years, first being elected in 1997. She’s played a role in various committees, and was chosen as chair of Ottawa’s planning committee in December 2014. Before that she was an adamant figure on the Ottawa Public Library Board.
In a letter sent to the integrity commissioner by her lawyer, Harder disagreed with the findings and said she was “saddened by the fact that this investigation appears to be a politically motivated attack on me personally as chair of planning.”
Harder also said that she made sure Clarke had no input in her father’s development files and that “she simply didn’t see them,” according to the report. The Barrhaven Councillor also compared the longtime city developer’s daughter’s employment and contract work to how the city hires legal consultants and planning advisors.
“The City regularly contracts out work to the private sector to lawyers, planners and a host of other contractors,” Harder told the integrity commissioner. “There are law firms and planners that regularly act against the City that also work for it.”
Stirling and Clarke agreed to be interviewed for the investigation, and the integrity commissioner says he found no issues relating to their conduct. Councillor Harder also agreed to be interviewed and had a lawyer present, but refused to testify under oath, the report read.
Another recommendation from the integrity commissioner to council is “to seek reimbursement of any legal fees related to the investigation charged by Councillor Harder to her office budget.”
City council will vote on whether to approve or deny the recommendations during council on Wednesday, June 23.
Harder, who has already said she doesn’t plan to seek re-election in 2022, is the third Ottawa city councillor to have the integrity commissioner file a report to council regarding conduct violations. In 2019, Osgoode Ward councillor George Darouze was found to have bullied constituents, and in 2020, two reports were filed against College Ward councillor Rick Chiarelli, who has had a multiple women come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct.