Ongoing litigation related to botched diversity training controversy, adviser says

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A Sarnia councilman allegedly at the center of a diversity training that went wrong for the council says litigation is ongoing.

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Bill Dennis wrote in an email that he would not comment further until a separate investigation is complete.

Sarnia Integrity Commissioner Paul Watson said he is investigating two complaints related to the botched November 15 diversity board formation with Toronto’s KOJO Institute.

Dennis did not specifically respond to questions about who is named in a lawsuit, but said he looked forward to commenting when the “investigation” is complete.

“The public needs to know the truth and not the political spin, false narratives and inaccurate information that are currently circulating,” he wrote. “I can’t wait to set the record straight.”

Leaked audio of what several council members confirmed was his December 13 closed meeting includes Dennis jeering at some councilors’ ‘woke leadership’, and ‘bead-tightening’, ‘false outrage (and) PC (politically correct) culture taking over this advice.”

This meeting followed virtual training completed on November 15, which KOJO said was marred by “uninterrupted, uncorrected and relentless hostility” from some board members.

Dennis, in the audio recording, also takes aim at an unidentified woman as “a racist herself”, saying “Canada is not a racist country and I’m not going to sit down and let somebody talk about this way”.

Dennis calls the session “…not as advertised,” saying it’s basically critical race theory, “offensive from the start,” and adding “she said some very offensive things that I don’t disagreed”.
KOJO senior consultant Kike Ojo-Thompson, who is black, led the Nov. 15 training session for the board.

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A request for comment from Ojo-Thompson on Dennis’ remarks was not returned by press time. Earlier in the week, Craig Peter, KOJO’s chief operating officer, said in multiple emails that the institute had “no comments regarding this leaked meeting/recording.”

Dennis also did not respond to an emailed question about whether anything was incorrect in the nearly six-minute recording he recently told City Council was “highly edited.”

The Observer confirmed that the source of the audio was a participant in the December 13 closed council meeting.

No recording devices, except those operated by the municipality, are allowed in closed meetings, City Clerk Amy Burkhart said. The normal practice of recording meetings was suspended amid COVID-19 for practical reasons, although it is set to resume when the board returns to hybrid in-person and online meetings on May 9.

The recordings are normally made to assist in potential investigations by the Ontario ombudsman and not for any other purpose, Burkhart said.

The December 13 recording includes Dennis talking about “legal ramifications” and “falling like a hammer with a lawsuit.” The adviser is also taking aim at his colleagues, saying he is “the only one doing anything on this council” and notes that he faced backlash for supporting Mayor Mike Bradley in the 2018 election.

“I put everyone on notice. … I’m not taking it anymore,” he said. ” I have money. I will descend (like) a hammer. If this continues, I will file a complaint.

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Com. Nathan Colquhoun, in a blog post, said he made a motion at the Dec. 13 closed meeting for the board to publicly release a Dec. 2 letter from KOJO to Sarnia’s chief administrative officer, Chris Carter, to inform the “public of what is happening”. within our city leadership positions.

In the letter, KOJO withdrew proposals for further training with city management and the city’s police board based on the alleged hostility.

Colquhoun also said Dennis was one of two advisers who were “hostile, racist, sexist, and completely disrespectful and inappropriate” toward KOJO’s Ojo-Thompson.

Dennis did not respond specifically to questions about the allegations.

After several appeals from local social justice agencies, and with legal advice from Toronto law firm Aird & Berlis and KOJO’s blessing to release “personal information”, KOJO’s letter and other details were published in the April 11 board meeting agenda.

“We are pleased that it has been released,” said Andrew Bolter of Community Legal Assistance Sarnia, one of the groups that has been asking the council for action since February.

“When someone walks away from a formation like that with those words, it indicates there is a serious problem,” he said of the KOJO letter qualifying the environment. of Sarnia of “dangerous” for further training.

Bolter added, “We just hope the City Council takes this issue seriously and recognizes that racism, systemic racism is in our community, and accepts that it needs to be addressed.”

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Council also passed a 6-3 vote on Monday to release redacted items from the agenda and minutes of the December 13 closed meeting.

This additional information is expected to be released at the May 9 board meeting, Burkhart said.

John Pappas of Aird & Berlis suggested that the board include a caveat not to disclose anything over which it has no authority, which includes personal information, broadly defined under the Privacy Act. access to municipal information and the protection of privacy.

Com. Mike Stark, who offered to publish everything, declined to change his wording.

“Even though we have advice not to release this information, it seems to me that the public is aware of the situation,” he said in an interview.

“I think it’s a matter of. . . transparency as much as possible, given the limitations that transcripts do not necessarily reflect everything that happened,” he said.

Councilors Margaret Bird, Terry Burrell and Dennis voted against, Dennis saying he could not bear to reveal information in the documents with “a high probability of ongoing litigation taking place”.

He also referenced what he called the “illegal” recording which was shared on social media.

Disclosing personal information in violation of the law can also result in “quasi-criminal” charges and is a violation of the council’s code of conduct, Pappas noted.

Public disclosure of the remaining information at this stage outweighs any freedom of information risk, Bradley said.

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“A lot of this has (already) been made public by people,” he said.

“My belief on this one is divulge, divulge, divulge because, if you don’t, you will always leave the impression that there was something that was not shared with the public.”

He didn’t hear the recording but saw a transcript, Bradley said, noting there’s been confusion and people mistakenly think it’s a November 15 recording.

“The mood of the meeting (of December 13), I think, was captured by whoever posted it that there were significant issues going on,” he said, noting that the full meeting was lasted about an hour and that he was “disappointed with the personalization of the meeting.

There could have been selective editing, he said.

Stark said he was taken aback by the amount of vitriol at the meeting, calling it “shocking and disturbing”.

Also on Monday, Colquhoun introduced a motion that all private meetings with city staff involving council members be recorded and then made public.

He said decisions were made, without the full board, about whether to hold the KOJO training behind closed doors and whether there would be a formal board apology afterwards, noting that the board was bound by those decisions. Many board members individually apologized to KOJO after Nov. 15 on behalf of their colleagues.

The Board defeated Colquhoun’s motion 8-1, with Colquhoun being the only vote in favor.

Bradley said he provided advice through the city clerk, but did not direct any action.

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Interactions such as advisers asking about upcoming motions should not be recorded, the adviser said. Terry Burrell said during Monday’s meeting.

Other council training sessions have taken place outside of closed meetings, Colquhoun said. Sarnia officials, however, said the city’s decision not to hold the meeting in public was prompted by the KOJO, which advised that an open session was undesirable for property reasons and for ensure that the training would be effective.

Meanwhile, a new trainer has been found for the city’s senior executives, Sarnia Chief Administrator Chris Carter said.

Turner Consulting will host the May 31 diversity, equity and inclusion training, he said. The cost is $1,200.

Police board discussions about hiring a new trainer for that group are ongoing, Carter and Bradley said. The cost of forming the police board has not been set, Carter said.

A new leader is “imminent” for the force to replace outgoing leader Norm Hansen in June, Bradley said.

He previously said the postponement of the formation of the police board would be delayed until the new chief could attend.

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