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Norfolk mayor warns that confidential leaks damaging county

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Mayor Kristal Chopp has taken a local advocacy group to task for claims it has made about this year’s hiring of a new county CAO.

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The Concerned Residents of Norfolk County, which has 3,000 followers on Facebook, emerged as critics after Norfolk council made a number of controversial decisions at the end of January regarding the future of county arenas, museums and community halls.

These decisions were made during January’s budget deliberations. Council spent more than three hours in-camera discussing the changes and then approved them in a span of 15 minutes in open session – all with little discussion and no community consultation.

The Concerned Residents’ latest salvo came at the end of October in a news release regarding the hiring in March of CAO Jason Burgess. Burgess was the architect of the controversial budget measures council approved when he was serving Norfolk as a consultant with a specialty in finance.

In its critique, Concerned Residents suggest Chopp was solely responsible for Burgess’s hiring. The release also included detailed, confidential information that Chopp says could only have come from a council member with in-camera privileges.

“The exact wording and exact language from Mr. Burgess’s contract was somehow leaked to the Concerned Residents group that would’ve only come from a closed-session report to council as no (Freedom of Information) request was ever filed in the matter,” Chopp said at the end of the Nov. 10 council-in-committee meeting.

“Yes – there was a hiring committee. The hiring committee was established as all of council. In terms of the vote, all of council voted unanimously to hire Mr. Burgess. I alone did not hire Mr. Burgess.”

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The Concerned Residents’ Oct. 30 news release included a “confidential memorandum,” dated April 23, from county lawyer Paula Boutis detailing the terms of Burgess’s employment.

Chopp says she actually exceeded council’s expectations in her negotiations with Burgess. Council authorized Chopp to offer Burgess up to two years severance in the event he was fired or constructively dismissed. Burgess agreed to 18 months.

Concerned Residents has also made an issue of Burgess’s salary, which – at $225,000 — is $35,000 higher than the salary paid to David Cribbs, the last full-time CAO Norfolk had before the incumbent.

Chopp says market conditions justify this because Burgess was an in-demand municipal consultant before he agreed to fill the vacancy in Norfolk.

In an interview on Nov. 12, Chopp said this is not the first time confidential, in-camera information about county staff has been leaked. She referred to recent closed-door discussions involving the employment status of Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, Norfolk and Haldimand’s Medical Officer of Health.

Nesathurai has upset some farmers with COVID-19 orders regarding migrant workers and bunkhouses that go above and beyond what is required elsewhere in Ontario.

Chopp said these leaks are illegal under the Municipal Act and come with consequences. She added the leaks are bad for employee morale and have the potential to deter good candidates from applying for work in Norfolk County.

“The damage this does to our staff is significant,” Chopp said. “The attacks on Jason are not right.”

Chopp added critics of Norfolk County would have a different take on Governor Simcoe Square if they knew how well regarded Burgess is within municipal circles in Ontario.

“He is first-rate, and we’re lucky to have him,” she said. “It’s terrible what they (Concerned Residents) are doing to this council and what they’re doing to Jason.”

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