With Niagara Regional Council set to debate another extension of Councillor Petrowski’s leave of absence (and make it retroactive) at this evening’s Council meeting, there are a number of things that need to be considered, especially the piece around accountability.
There has been a great deal of speculation (including by me) that, based on the Councillor’s actions and behaviour, he may be dealing with a mental health issue. If this is the case, I sincerely hope that he is getting the help that he needs to feel better.
As someone who has had episodes of clinical depression and who was the only support for a younger sister who lived with multiple and difficult to manage mental health and addictions issues, I take very seriously both the need to reduce stigma and the need to provide better mental health care.
All of that said, there is still the accountability piece that needs to be considered in all of this.
Presumably, the Councillor is not dealing with a mental health issue, as no one has given us any reason to believe that he’s received a diagnosis (and, yes, no one should be required to disclose this) but, instead, is dodging suffering embarrassment or being held to account for his actions and behaviour, given that the timing of his leave requests coincide directly with being called out on those actions and behaviour.
However, if there is, indeed, a mental health concern, this does not abdicate the Councillor from being accountable for his actions and behaviour, nor does it abdicate other councillors or staff from being held responsible for enabling it.
Let me explain.
What we know at present is as follows:
- both original requests for leave (May 2017 and December 2017) immediately followed very public events that resulted in calls for the Councillor’s resignation;
- the Integrity Commissioner (IC) ruled in January 2018 that the Councillor’s pay should be frozen after he e-mailed a pornographic image to more than 100 people from his regional e-mail address;
- the first leave extension (February) permits the Councillor to continue to be paid, as he doesn’t have to return to Council to answer to the IC’s ruling;
- this second leave extension (to be debated tonight and bringing this leave to a total of nine months for this leave) will continue to permit the Councillor to be paid and not have to answer to the IC’s ruling about freezing his pay.
All of these actions indicate that the Councillor is able to think through the consequences that affect him personally (i.e., his wallet/bank account and public embarrassment).
He appears capable of making decisions to look out for his own interests.
That said, if he is dealing with and seeking help for a mental health diagnosis, this does not mean he is not still accountable for his actions. Anyone who has lived with someone who has had mental health diagnoses knows that there continue to be expectations around them still acting with basic human decency toward others.
Let us also keep in mind that if this was any one of the rest of us who were dealing with a health issue (physical or mental) that prevented us from showing up for work, we would have first gone on short-term disability and we would now be on long-term disability (which comes with a reduction in pay, dependent upon one’s benefit package) or ODSP. We would not still be collecting our full rate of pay.
Further, the councillors who have voted in favour of the initial and extended requests for leave are also accountable for creating a situation where the Councillor does not have to answer for his actions/behaviour in addition to permitting a waste of taxpayer dollars (nearly $30,000 if this new request for an extension is granted, as we will have seen the Councillor on leave for a total of 11 months…there there’s still the additional two months until the new Council is sworn in).
For those in the community who are insisting that Council declare the seat vacant now, it’s important to note that they cannot do that. By granting the Councillor leave, they have indicated to the public that he still holds the seat; therefore, it has, in fact, not been legitimately ‘vacant’ for 90 days.
In my opinion, the leave extension should be denied tonight. Council should be clear that if the Councillor in question wants to continue to be paid, then he must show up for work. If he is incapable of showing up for work, then he should resign the position (certainly if he is capable of requesting multiple extensions on his leave, he is equally capable of recognizing he cannot carry out his duties to the electorate and make the decision to resign).
His seat should then be filled by appointing someone (as it can’t be left vacant for more than 90 days, even this close to an election, though I also don’t know a reasonable person who will complain about it just being left vacant at this point).
Come October, it’s time to Reset the Region with individuals who understand how municipal government works and who will make decisions that are in the best interests of the citizens of St. Catharines and Niagara.