THUNDER BAY – Thunder Bay city councillor Rajni Agarwal has been docked 30 days’ pay after the city’s integrity commissioner found she violated council’s code of conduct.
Council voted to impose the penalty in a sometimes-tense meeting Monday, based on a finding by the integrity commissioner that Agarwal violated the code during a dispute with residents over the summer.
Agarwal's behaviour included giving residents the middle finger and claiming to represent the city, after she objected to those residents temporarily parking a trailer over a sidewalk while conducting grading work on their property.
The incident occurred on Beverley Street, near her real estate office, on June 13.
Principles Integrity, the firm that provides integrity commissioner services to the city, launched an investigation after receiving a complaint the following day.
Their report found Agarwal’s “confrontational and harassing” behaviour toward the residents during the incident violated rule nine of the code of conduct.
The rule states that councillors are “held to a higher standard of behaviour… and accordingly their behaviour should be exemplary.”
The report also charges that Agarwal improperly used her status as a city councillor to seek a city bylaw and police response to the dispute, calling that “an egregious abuse of authority.”
Jeff Abrams and Janice Atwood of Principles Integrity told council Agarwal’s lack of contrition over the incident was one factor in the substantial pay suspension they recommended.
Council is not bound to follow the integrity commissioner’s recommendations. Its options ranged from declining to impose a penalty, to issuing a reprimand, to a maximum penalty of 90 day’s pay.
The 30-day pay suspension council approved is expected to cost Agarwal well over $3,000.
Agarwal repeated criticisms of the report Monday, alleging it included “incorrect statements” and saying it underplayed her concerns that the sidewalk blockage was a safety threat, after claiming she saw a senior with a walker move onto the roadway to get around it.
The first-term councillor has declined multiple requests for an interview to answer questions about the incident.
She shared pictures with Dougall Media that appear to show a trailer blocking the sidewalk and a pedestrian with a walker on the side of Beverley Street on June 13.
Agarwal for the first time publicly apologized on Monday, saying she had been wrong to gesture with the middle finger.
At the same time, however, she doubled down on defenses of her behaviour and defiance of the integrity commissioner’s conclusions.
“I stand by my actions there, because that woman was in danger,” she said. “Going downhill on Beverley Street, which is a very busy road, she could have been hurt, and I would never have lived with myself. And I hope people here at council would have done the same.”
Abrams and Atwood said their investigation concluded there was no safety threat, saying someone was available to move the vehicle if needed, and suggesting the senior was known to walk on the roadway habitually and was not doing so due to the blockage.
They also pushed back forcefully on Agarwal’s criticisms of their report.
Atwood noted it had taken Agarwal over two months after being made aware of the complaint to even acknowledge the middle finger gesture had “possibly occurred.”
“It was denial and deflection throughout,” she said of Agarwal’s response to the investigation.
A move to reduce Agarwal’s penalty to two weeks’ pay, proposed by Coun. Trevor Giertuga, failed on a 5-5 tie.
Couns. Bentz, Etreni, Giertuga, Johnsen, and Zussino voted to reduce the penalty, while Couns. Aiello, Ch’ng, Foulds, Hamilton, Pasqualino voted against.
“There’s no doubt the gesture was inappropriate and some other aspects were inappropriate,” said Giertuga. “[But] it’s something that many people have done throughout their lives… As councillors, we’re held to a higher standard. But I do really believe in progressive discipline. I believe that a month… is a little bit high.”
Coun. Mark Bentz agreed
“There is some wrongdoing here,” he said. “The reason I’d like to give some leeway to the recommended sanctions is to just say, ‘Coun. Agarwal – We want you to improve.’ This is not a punishment. We’re all here to learn.”
“Everyone does these types of things at some point or another, but we do want Coun. Agarwal to improve in how she goes about her business.”
Coun. Agarwal declared a conflict, while Mayor Ken Boshcoff and Coun. Kristen Oliver were absent.
Giertuga later cast the only vote against imposing the 30-day pay suspension recommended by the firm Principles Integrity, which provides integrity commissioner services to the city.
Agarwal was ruled out of order several times during Monday’s discussion by Coun. Shelby Ch’ng, chairing the meeting, for repeatedly calling that investigation into question.
Ch'ng told council its discussion must focus on the penalty recommended by Principles Integrity, and not the facts of the case, which she said council was not in a position to re-litigate.
While several councillors questioned that approach, none formally challenged Ch'ng's rulings as chair, which both Principles Integrity and city clerk Krista Power appeared to endorse.
The city clerk's office could not immediately confirm the basis for those rulings on Tuesday.
In a public statement released Tuesday, Agarwal noted that seemed to depart from past history.
Former councillor Aldo Ruberto, for example, was allowed last year to comment at length on the facts surrounding an integrity commissioner report into his conduct, before council narrowly voted not to sanction him.
"It is simply not possible to participate in this discussion without commenting on the underlying facts of the report, which the chair refused to let me do," the statement reads. "At all previous appearances by the integrity commissioner, members of council were allowed to make full answer to the report."
In the limited time she was permitted to speak, Agarwal pushed back against the report’s finding that her repeated calls for a police and city bylaw response to the issue constituted abuse of her authority.
She said after raising the issue with the city manager and the city’s dispatch line, both had suggested she contact police with her concerns.
“I spoke with police and said, it’s not an emergency,” she said. “I asked them not to leave what they were doing, and if they were driving by the area to take care of it.”
Atwood responded that it had been Agarwal’s decision alone to contact police, and that her email urging the city’s bylaw department to penalize the residents clearly overstepped her role as a councillor.
Agarwal declined an interview request as she left council chambers Monday.
Note: This article has been updated to include information from a statement posted by Coun. Agarwal on Tuesday.