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After receiving 10 complaints in April and May about Nickel’s social media posts from members of the public, Pytel conducted investigations into his actions. In the posts in question, Nickel called out fellow councillors for approving “emergency bike lanes” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the decision to open up shared-use paths on streets for cyclists and pedestrians was one made by city staff, without a vote from council, to provide more room for physical distancing. One of the posts included a cartoon of Coun. Andrew Knack throwing money into a fire, symbolizing property tax revenue being spent toward more bike lanes.
Pytel said she found the posts violated the code of conduct for being disrespectful of other councillors, lacking decorum, containing misleading information and not accurately reflecting the facts of council’s decisions. She argued she made her decisions based on the code of conduct that was approved by council back in June 2018.
“The crux of Coun. Nickel’s response to these complaints is that he is exercising his freedom of expression and he is also worried that democracy is being threatened. I’m not worried about that,” Pytel said in her presentation to council Wednesday. “Democracy is particularly threatened in my view when councillors are issuing information that is misleading.”
But Couns. Tony Caterina, Jon Dziadyk, Moe Banga and Tim Cartmell didn’t agree with the sanction recommendation and voted in opposition.
Although Cartmell said he did not approve of Nickel calling Knack out through a cartoon, he argued council shouldn’t be responsible to hold a councillor in judgement for how they act on social media.
“It was unwarranted, unfair and certainly undeserved, but I don’t think it rises to the level of sanction,” he said.
Voting in favour of the sanction, Knack said he wasn’t offended by the post about him, but is concerned about disrespect towards other councillors and members of the public.
“I don’t believe we need to be disrespectful to make a point, even about serious issues,” he said. “If we don’t choose to hold ourselves accountable to a code of conduct that we all agreed to, then we don’t need a code of conduct and we don’t need an integrity commissioner or an ethics advisor.”
Nickel hired Jonathan Denis, former Justice Minister and Attorney-General of Alberta, as his legal counsel with funds from his own pocket. In addressing council before the decision, Denis said Nickel won’t apologize for his posts.
Since being hired as the city’s first integrity commissioner in Sept. 2018, Pytel has received a total of 36 complaints and has investigated 19 — 10 of them stemming from Nickel’s posts. This is the first time she found there to be violations and therefore recommended a sanction.