Days after he declared he would not attend the May 9 meeting of Carleton Place town council, Mayor Louis Antonakos presided over a boisterous and emotional meeting as over 120 residents called for the embattled mayor to resign. He faced boos and derisive laughter at his refusal to admit any wrongdoing following the release of a stinging report by integrity commissioner Robert Swayze.
Swayze’s investigation concluded that the 2012 actions of then councillor Antonakos in “clandestinely recording and playing a tape of a closed session dealing with the sale of municipal land, for the person bidding on the land, is the most egregious disclosure of confidential information I have ever encountered in nine years serving as an Integrity Commissioner. In my opinion, it should be dealt with severely.”
Swayze took the unusual move of presenting his findings directly to council in the historic Carleton Place town hall, which had been booked to expect the large crowd that attended.
“My report speaks for itself,” Swayze said. “I took no pleasure in doing the investigation [nor] in writing the report, but I did find a serious breach in the council code of conduct in the disclosure of one in camera meeting, albeit almost five years ago.”
Swayze had been acting on a complaint by developer Volundur Thorbjornsson, who alleged that on six to eight occasions, Antonakos recorded in-camera sessions of Carleton Place town council and then shared their contents with “groups of people in the development business.”
Swayze spoke with town councillors, staff, and members of the public who asked their that identities not be revealed, though former Mayor Paul Dulmage was content to have his name on the record. Antonakos refused to be personally interviewed for the investigation, preferring to send in a written denial.
The commissioner’s report details the forging of a political alliance in 2012 between Antonakos and Thorbjornsson to promote Antonakos’ 2014 mayoral election campaign and to assist Thorbjornsson in “developing land in the town, some of which was owned by the town.” The two met to strategize both on Wednesday mornings and at occasions referred to as “steak nights.” Swayze interviewed four other witnesses who admitted attending those meetings.
“I don’t want anyone to think that my report is an endorsement of Mr. Thorbjornsson’s actions,” Swayze declared. “I have acted for most of the large developers in the province of Ontario and they don’t act like this. He is culpable, as is the mayor. Mr. Dulmage also should know better. He’s an experienced politician and he shouldn’t be sitting and listening to a tape with a developer concerning the developer’s bid for a piece of land that was being discussed confidentially.”
Call to resign
An emotional Councillor Sean Redmond addressed Antonakos directly, calling the integrity commissioner’s report similar to “that of a plot in a soap opera.”
“I respect the office of mayor, I just can no longer respect the individual currently occupying it because he himself does not respect the office,”Redmond said. “Council has been constantly under your internal attack since the very early stages of our term.”
Redmond recalled a scathing letter that Antonakos sent to a local newspaper in December, 2015, that both discussed the importance of respecting the confidentiality of in-camera sessions and challenged members of council to resign if they felt they could not serve the best interests of the community.
“I ask that you man up and do what you demanded of your colleagues in that letter,” Redmond said, to an eruption of sustained applause. “What you found so reprehensible, damaging to our town, and totally unethical, you are guilty of, Mayor Antonakos.”
Antonakos did not respond to audience outbursts, attempting to remain unperturbed as the floor was opened to often forceful and pointed questions and comments from local citizens. Most who came forward expressed a mix of emotions ranging from sadness and frustration to rage and disappointment over the political state of affairs at council, asking how the government can function an additional two years faced with such a divide.
Some admitted to supporting Antonakos in his election as mayor, and now regretting their decision.
Thorbjornsson addresses mayor
Among those speaking directly to Antonakos was Thorbjornsson himself, who identified himself as “the centre of this fiasco that we’ve been going through.” He apologized for his conduct in the affair, recalling that he was approached by Antonakos and “I was foolish enough to accept [the] confidential information that was shared with me.”
Thorbjornsson said that the breach of confidentiality is “only the tip of the iceberg. I’ve witnessed so many things that are dubious, illegal, unethical actions of our mayor, so all I can do is demand his resignation.”
While the integrity commissioner’s report acknowledged that Thorbjornsson had leveled numerous accusations against Antonakos, including the declaration that the mayor acted in a “vengeful and punitive way” against him, Swayze determined that the scope of his investigation was limited to the taping and sharing of the confidential meetings.
Swayze did note that he had “no evidence of payoffs,” adding that had some indication of kickbacks been found, he would have called in the police.
Linda Seccaspina, a well-known Carleton place blogger and photographer, told town council she has received hundreds of emails regarding the controversy, and summarized as a common sentiment that local politicians need to be held to “a higher moral standard.”
“Carleton Place can’t take two more years of a town council being run like this,” she said. “We need to get rid of absolutely anyone in power who is driven by their own self-interest and egos.”
Mayor calls for release of confidential documents
Antonakos repeatedly said that he would “be more than happy to provide further comment just as soon as all the confidential information” related to the investigation was released to the public.
“If a member of council would like to make a motion to release those documents to the media and all members of the public, I would be happy to make a comment. That’s my statement,” he said.
Integrity commissioner Swayze, whose expertise was repeatedly called upon during the course of the raucous session of council, implied that Antonakos’ position was untenable, as any information that came to him under the investigation required him “to preserve secrecy.”
Nevertheless, Antonakos asked, “How can I comment on something when I haven’t seen the evidence? I need permission of this council to defend myself, to defend my honour and my name. I’d be happy to answer the questions just as soon as this council authorizes me to discuss the confidential information.”
Asked to comment on whether council can release the confidential documents that had been part of his investigation, Swayze promptly responded, “The answer is no. It’s totally within my discretion, and I’m not about to release anything confidential.”
One audience member asked how Swayze had come to his conclusion given Antonakos’ vehement denials of taping and sharing in camera meetings.
Swayze noted that during his interviews with both Dulmage and Thorbjornsson , “I asked all these questions with all the minutes of these in-camera meetings in front of me, and these people knew too much for them to just find out off the street. They knew too much.”
A divided council forges ahead
While Swayze recommended that Antonakos’ current pay be docked equivalent to what he would have earned as a councillor over 90 days in 2012, it is unclear what steps council may now take to resolve the conflict.
Asked whether he would resign “for the good of this town” by one resident, Antonakos responded, “I will not resign this evening and I will never admit to something I did not do.”
Speaking with Hometown News immediately following the meeting, a number of councillors reiterated their commitment to doing whatever they can to meet the needs of their constituents.
“I’m disappointed that we’ve come to this place,” said councillor Theresa Fritz. She respects the integrity commissioner finding that Antonakos “did in fact breach the code of conduct by sharing confidential information, and there’s no need for anybody to disclose further confidential information for that to be proven. The community and members of council are upset, but we have to move forward, I’m not sure how that happens, but I can say my confidence in the mayor is shaken at this point in time.”
The evening felt like “a huge moment, and I feel good about my statement,” said Redmond. “I feel other members of council backed me up in what I said. I think that we have shown our unity together as council, and we are all looking forward to having this day behind us.”
“Things are still up in the air,” said Deputy Mayor Jerry Flynn. “The mayor has been asked to resign, we’ve seen his response, so we’ll see what kind of public outcry comes from this. But the public has clearly spoken here tonight.”