Council decided last night to censure Councillor Dave Michell over his attempt to sway at least one other councillor in a land severance request in which he has an interest.
Mitchell wanted to sever a 0.5 hectare (1.25 acre) piece of land from his farm to create a residential lot for his sister's house, which currently sits on the land.
After the Committee of Adjustment approved the request, city staff argued that it violates provincial rules under the Greenbelt Plan as well as the Provincial Policy Statement against converting prime agricultural land to residential zoning.
City staff appealed the decision to the planning committee, recommending that the city challenge Mitchell at an Ontario Municipal Board hearing.
Mitchell recused himself from that meeting, and the commitee voted unanimously to support the staff recommendation.
Then the Hamilton Spectator dropped a doozy. The meeting was in camera, but someone leaked a report that Councillor Robert Pasuta claimed Mitchell had "lobbied" him in regards to the severance request:
When the planning committee retreated behind closed doors to seek legal advice on the case, Pasuta raised his hand to say he was concerned he may have a conflict. He paced the floor as he said Mitchell had asked him to present a motion to go against staff advice to take the case to the OMB.
It is illegal under the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act for a councillor to try to influence a vote when they have a financial stake in the decision.
Mitchell denied the accusation, claiming, "I've had no conversations at all about this application with my colleagues."
Several of his colleagues disputed this, claiming that he had discussed the issue with them, but stopping short of claiming he tried to influence their decisions. By contrast, Councillor Brad Clark argued that simply talking about the deal crossed the line, a view shared by lawyers specializing in conflict of interest legislation.
After Pasuta's claim went public, Mitchell withdrew his land severance application. However, planning and economic development manager Tim McCabe insisted that withdrawing the application does not dismiss the Committee of Adjustment's decision to allow the severance, and the city must still appeal it to avoid a precedent.
Last night, after a three hour in camera session, Council decided to censure Mitchell over his actions. As part of the censure, Mitchell will not be allowed to chair or vice-chair a committee or act as deputy mayor for the rest of his term on council.
Another Council option was to order a judicial inquiry into the allegations, but a city legal advisor claimed this could cost up to $1 million to pursue. Instead, Council decided to respond according to its own code of conduct.
A private citizen could still ask a judge to investigate the matter under the Act.
This is not the first censure against Mitchell. In October 2005 Council censured him for trying to use his office to avoid a speeding ticket on his motorcycle - and then accusing the police of corruption when the officer wouldn't let him off the hook.
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