Harder Steps Down as Planning Committee Chair

By Charlie Senack

Barrhaven Independent

Barrhaven Councillor Jan Harder has stepped down as Chair of the planning committee, following a damning 101-page report by the city’s integrity commissioner, questioning her friendly connection to a well-known Ottawa developer.

Harder told her council colleagues that she’d be stepping aside from the planning committee chair during Ottawa’s council meeting on Wednesday, June 23. The Barrhaven councillor who was first elected in the former city of Nepean in 1997, has been the chair of Ottawa’s planning committee since 2014.

“The hyper-aggressive online attacks and libels directed at me and others since Friday threatened to curtail the city-building work that must continue at planning committee,” Harder told council Wednesday morning. She also stepped down from the municipal lands development corporation and the planning advisory committee.

Integrity Commissioner report

Harder’s decision to step aside came nearly a week after a report was brought forward by Integrity Commissioner Robert Marleau, who said Harder violated the councillor code of conduct by hiring Alison Stirling (now Clarke), daughter of well-known Nepean developer Jack Stirling. Mr. Stirling has been involved in many key planning files and is well known in the planning community. Marleau said given Harder’s relationship with the Stirling family, it “tainted” the city’s planning and development process.

Harder violated Section 4 of the code by hiring Clarke, 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.

Harder told investigators she has known the Stirling family since the late 1990’s, according to the integrity commissioner’s report. Harder claimed she first met Jack when he was planner for the former 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.

Clarke worked for Harder as an employee from August 2017 to July 2018, 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 about a year after beginning work in the councillor’s office, Clarke returned to Stirling Group and worked as a consultant for Harder 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 include 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 Ms. 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?”

As a result, integrity commissioner Marleau recommended city council vote to remove Harder as chair of planning, dock 15 days pay, remove the Barrhaven councillor from the Ottawa Community Lands Development Corporation board, and to make sure Harder reimburses any legal fees charged to her office budget.

Harder responds

During council on Wednesday, Harder repeated claims that she did nothing wrong and said the report was “politically driven.” Harder said the reason why she’s stepping down is because the report was getting in the way of planning issues and was “too disruptive.”

“There was no violation in the hiring process; no violation of the municipal conflict of interests act; and no evidence of conflict of interest,” she said.

At first Harder appeared as if she wanted to fight the report. Her lawyer, Michael Polowin, obtained another legal opinion by law specialist John Mascarin, whose firm acts as integrity commissioner for over 40 municipal governments.

Mascarin told Ottawa city council in his own report that the recommendations by the integrity commissioner “are not appropriate remedial measures” authorized by the Ontario Municipal Act. He said the proposed penalties “are not reasonable and are not supported by the jurisprudence.” But in the end Harder decided to step aside to make sure planning work can continue.

“Over the last few days I have faced online harassment from what appears to be an organized campaign from a driven loony group,” Harder added. “Aside from me, many individuals, including some from around the council table, have had their good names tarnished. This vocal group of opponents seems to be against the testimonial development we have been witnessing in this city.”

Harder said the only findings from the integrity commissioners report is the city needs to review and revisit its hiring policies. She also apologized to her council colleagues for putting them in this difficult position. “That was never my wish, and for that I am sorry,” she said.”

The Barrhaven ward councillor also said she’s sad for how her longstanding position on the planning committee is coming to an end, and plans to now devote more time to her constituents. Previously, Harder has announced she won’t seek another term on council after two and a half decades representing Barrhaven residents.

“This decision hurts me as I have worked tirelessly with great commitment over the last six years — actually more than the last six years — as the chair of planning,” she said. “I am proud of my contributions to the development of our city. I will continue to work harder than ever for my constituents in Barrhaven. I am looking forward to having increased availability and spending more quality time with constituents in my ward.”

Councillors react

River Ward councillor Riley Brockington was the only council member to publicly thank Harder for her many years of service on the planning committee. He said she was always very accessible and was always there to answer any questions other members had. Brockington, however, stressed that council’s role during this meeting was to “restore public trust and confidence which has been fractured.”

Diane Deans, who is councillor for Gloucester-SouthGate, said the public is losing “good faith” in this term of council and that rules must apply to all members. She said if it was other councillors’ integrity being questioned — a member who is not typically on Team Watson — the recommendations would be fully applied.

Somerset ward councillor Catherine McKenney, echoed Dean’s sentiments and said “it is obvious there are two sets of rules in this city.” McKenney referred to previous investigations showing misconduct on current councillors conduct, where they got off. “Sorry is all it took,” she said.

Mayor Jim Watson didn’t comment much on the integrity commissioner’s findings regarding Harder, but said he agreed with her decision to step down as the chair of planning. After Harder announced her resignation, Watson moved a motion for council to accept the integrity commissioner’s report, but to forgo many of the sanctions in the report while saying Harder did no wrong.

In the end, Harder was reprimanded, with council voting 14 to 9 in favour of Watsons motion, which was tweaked at the last minute to reprimand the Barrhaven councillor while noting she at least did some wrong. It meant while Harder stepped down as the chair of planning, the city would pick up her legal fees which currently sit at $7,100 as of the end of April. The three and a half months of free work provided by The Stirling Group also doesn’t have to be registered in the gift registry.

Before the council meeting got underway, Horizon Ottawa, Ecology Ottawa, ACORN, and CAFES, held a joint virtual rally calling on Mayor Watson and city councillors to listen to the integrity report’s findings and follow through with its recommendations.

The next chair of the planning committee will be chosen during the next council meeting.