THUNDER BAY — Coun. Rajni Agarwal faces a recommended penalty after the city’s integrity commissioner found her behaviour in a dispute with residents — which included giving them the middle finger — constituted misconduct.
The firm Principles Integrity, which provides integrity commissioner services to the city, concluded in a report released Wednesday that Agarwal displayed “abrasive, confrontational and harassing” behaviour during the June incident, breaching council’s code of conduct.
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.”
Principles Integrity recommends Agarwal’s pay be suspended for 30 days.
Council will receive the report on Monday, but is not bound to follow the integrity commissioner’s recommendations. Council’s options range from declining to impose a penalty, to the maximum pay suspension of 90 days.
The incident in question occurred on Oasis Lane, off of Beverly Street near Lakehead University, on June 13.
Agarwal operates her real estate business out of a structure on that property, which she developed as a townhouse complex and previously provided property management services.
At the time, she became embroiled in a conflict with the owners of a townhouse who were carrying out grading work.
The owners were moving soil over their backyard fence into a trailer they had temporarily parked over a portion of the sidewalk along Beverly Street, using a conveyer belt-like device.
According to the integrity commissioner’s report, Agarwal yelled over the fence demanding that the work be stopped, claiming that she represented the city and that they were breaking the law by blocking the sidewalk.
After the property owners told Agarwal they had secured condo board permission and were recording her behaviour, which they considered harassment, the councillor was captured in a video “yelling at the owner, threatening the owner with the police, and making a rude gesture (the middle finger).”
The report paints that as part of a wider pattern of behaviour.
“When the owners were confronted with an irate, strident and overbearing Councillor Agarwal, yelling and gesticulating obscenities, they were not surprised,” it reads.
“We understand that the councillor is well-known to them, and to property management, who in January 2023 implemented a harassment policy for the condominium as a means of dealing with Councillor Agarwal’s pattern of behaviour.”
Agarwal declined an interview with TBnewswatch, saying she is working with legal counsel to respond to the report, which she called “incomplete.”
In a brief email, however, she said her reaction was a response to concerns over accessibility.
“My interaction was due to seeing a disabled woman being forced off the sidewalk and then she was walking downhill on Beverly Street to oncoming traffic,” she wrote. “I [saw] that a vehicle and trailer had completely blocked her ability to pass. There was a hydrant, tree and culvert on the grass area so she was not able to go by. I was triggered into a response and due to anger and fear reacted.”
Agarwal provided photos she says clearly show the extent of the obstruction.
The integrity commissioner’s report, however, concluded pedestrians still had “ample room to walk on the wide grassy boulevard around the trailer.”
During the course of the interaction, it says, Agarwal “invoked her authority as city councillor to threaten the owners with police and by-law enforcement action.”
She at one point falsely told the owners “I am representing the city.”
Police attended the scene twice at Agarwal’s request, first performing a “drive-by” and later re-attended “at the councillor’s insistence.”
According to the report, police simply reminded the owners to be available to move their vehicle if needed.
“In demanding that the police re-attend, the councillor was acting beyond her authority, attempting to exert undue influence and abusing her authority,” the report states. “Where a councillor believes, whether rightly or wrongly, that an offence is occurring, she has no greater power than any other member of the public to ‘action’ the matter.”
Agarwal also alerted city employees to her concerns, writing an email the commissioner said “purports to direct staff” — something councillors are not allowed to do.
“I think he should be charged for the damage as he knew after my first warning that he was is in the wrong and he did it anyway,” she wrote of the property owner in the email.
The bylaw enforcement division dispatched an officer the following day and determined that while a parking infraction might have existed temporarily, there was no observable damage.
The report concluded Agarwal’s behaviour had breached Rule 9 of the code of conduct.
“As leaders in the community, [councillors] are held to a higher standard of behaviour and conduct, and accordingly their behaviour should be exemplary,” the rule states.
Agarwal has waved away concerns over her apparent use of the middle finger.
In interviews with the integrity commissioner, she claimed the gesture “could have been unintentional,” occurring while waving her hands.
Principles Integrity notified Agarwal of the complaint and key facts during their investigation. The councillor responded with a submission of over 150 pages. The report called much of that response “irrelevant," noting Agarwal had not displayed contrition over the incident.