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Ellsworth to clear the air at today's council meeting

For media watchers, tonight's meeting of St. John's City Council should prove interesting indeed.

Councilor Ron Ellsworth is going to mend fences with Telegram reporter Tara Mullowney. It may be an apology or retraction. Or maybe a clarification. Or he may even dig the hole deeper though I doubt this.

Either way, his comments two weeks ago about Mullowney's reporting have raised sufficient concerns to warrant some kind of statement from Ellsworth, which sources say will be forthcoming tonight.

It started more than two weeks ago with a story by Mullowney in the Telegram (August 8), in which Ellsworth complained about the dismissal of the city's internal auditor. Here are the first three paragraphs from that story:

St. John's Deputy Mayor Ron Ellsworth is hoping council's decisions to remove him as chairman of the city's audit committee and to fire internal auditor Debbie Reid aren't connected.

"The general public should be concerned if there's any attempt to water down the internal audit committee or the office in any way, shape or form," Ellsworth told The Telegram Thursday.

"But if nothing is really changing, only personnel, then it's not really an issue at this point."

Things hit the fan at the subsequent city council meeting, with other councilors accusing Ellsworth of playing politics with the issue and getting an early start on the mayor's race. Another Mullowney story in the next day's Telegram (August 12) contained this passage:

During the council meeting, Ellsworth also told councillors The Telegram had slanted comments he made regarding Reid's firing and council's decision to name Coun. Debbie Hanlon chairwoman of the internal audit committee - a position he had held until that point.

"The question asked to me by the media was did I think one was related to the other. I said no," Ellsworth said.

In fact, when asked by The Telegram last Thursday whether he thought the two decisions were connected, Ellsworth's response was, "I would hope not. The general public should be concerned if there's any attempt to water down the internal audit committee or the office in any way, shape or form. But if nothing is really changing, only personnel, then it's not really an issue at this point."

Ellsworth makes a pretty serious accusation in the first paragraph, apparently in the heat of the moment. He didn't take into account that reporters take seriously any accusation of "slanted" coverage. It implies intentional distortion of the truth, which is tantamount to accusing a bank teller of stealing cash.

I contacted The Telegram about this, but they would not talk on the record. However, my source there said the paper was disappointed with the "slant" reference, and the comment did not go unchallenged.

There was an exchange with Ellsworth, who has indicated that he will address the matter at tonight's council meeting. Chances are, he will offer some sort of apology or clarification.

I suspect that Ellsworth used the term "slant" as a political dodging tactic, without realizing its smearing effect on the reporter in question.

It wouldn't be the first time that Ellsworth has opened mouth to insert foot. I am reminded of the time that CBC News caught him in a fib about election polling.

I will have more on this after tonight's meeting.

In the meantime, here are the two articles that generated this controversy, in chronological order.

From Friday, August 8:

Ellsworth questions auditor firing, committee moves

By Tara Mullowney

The Telegram

St. John's Deputy Mayor Ron Ellsworth is hoping council's decisions to remove him as chairman of the city's audit committee and to fire internal auditor Debbie Reid aren't connected.

"The general public should be concerned if there's any attempt to water down the internal audit committee or the office in any way, shape or form," Ellsworth told The Telegram Thursday.

"But if nothing is really changing, only personnel, then it's not really an issue at this point."

During the June 16 council meeting, councillors voted to take the role of chairman of the city's audit committee away from Ellsworth and give it to new Ward 4 Coun. Debbie Hanlon. Ellsworth has been named chairman of the city's finance and administration committee.

The motion to give the job to Hanlon was made by Coun. Keith Coombs, who said Ellsworth would be in a conflict of interest to hold both roles.

Ellsworth disagreed, but said he had no problem giving up the position. He noted he had encouraged Hanlon earlier in the day to take on a chairing position, and she had declined.

"I did not decline this position," Hanlon said at the time.

Reid, a longtime employee of the city, was offered a separation package by city council Thursday afternoon, after councillors debated the issue for three hours earlier in the day.

Mayor Dennis O'Keefe has confirmed Reid's recently submitted report on problems with the city's budget process was part of the reason for her termination, but declined to discuss the other reasons, only to say they were long-standing problems.

Ron Penney, city solicitor and chief commissioner, had been considering resigning if certain issues related to Reid weren't solved.

"Apparently Mr. Penney met and spoke with the mayor some 10 days ago, and indicated that he was going to put his notice in (today)," Ellsworth said.

"The mayor, Coun. (Keith) Coombs and Mr. Penney met, and then finally council found out (Wednesday) morning that Mr. Penney was intending to put in his notice."

It's council's understanding that Penney is no longer planning to resign, Ellsworth said.

Penney is on holidays and was unavailable for comment.

In her report, Reid made a number of recommendations to improve the budget process, including holding public consultations and conducting an annual "post-mortem" on the previous year's budget things Ellsworth has been publicly calling for.

Late last month, he told The Telegram he'd hold public consultations himself in his own kitchen, if council wouldn't support him.

Hanlon has said the audit committee will discuss at its next meeting, later this month, whether or not a new internal auditor should be hired, or if the job will be contracted out.

Ellsworth said if a new, full-time internal auditor isn't hired, he'll take issue with it.

"We're running a corporation with a $172 million budget, and after seeing what's happened with the MHA spending scandal, what's happened with the Cameron inquiry, you would think that we would want to make sure that we're pristine and clean," he said.

"If we outsource that job, I don't think we'll see the same quality of work being done as if we had a full-time staff working under council's direction."

From Tuesday, August 12:

Council heats up

O'Keefe accuses Ellsworth of starting race for mayor early

By Tara Mullowney

The Telegram

The controversy over the dismissal of the city's internal auditor got personal during Monday afternoon's council meeting, resulting in a heated argument between Mayor Dennis O'Keefe and Deputy Mayor Ron Ellsworth.

O'Keefe took exception to comments made by Ellsworth in Friday's Telegram, calling them "ridiculous allegations."

In an interview with The Telegram earlier in the day, the mayor said he felt the comments were "Ron Ellsworth's first feeble attempt at his mayoral run in 2009."

O'Keefe also chastised Ellsworth for choosing to abstain from the vote to fire internal auditor Debbie Reid last Wednesday.

"You, sir, had a responsibility to vote. If we all do that, if we abstain for no reason, we'll never get anywhere," O'Keefe told Ellsworth.

"Don't you point your finger at me and lecture me. Fifty-nine per cent of the general public elected me as deputy mayor, and I will represent them here in the chamber to the best of my ability," Ellsworth fired back.

Councillors voted 8-2 to dismiss Reid last week. O'Keefe has said the problems involving Reid go back years, but culminated with her recent report on the budget process, in which she listed numerous problems.

Her approach was alienating members of senior management, he said.

In Friday's Telegram, Ellsworth said if a new, full-time internal auditor isn't hired, he'd take issue with it.

"We're running a corporation with a $172-million budget, and after seeing what's happened with the MHA spending scandal, what's happened with the Cameron Inquiry ... you would think that we would want to make sure that we're pristine and clean," he said.

"That's totally ludicrous to connect all those things in the same breath," O'Keefe told The Telegram before Monday's council meeting, calling the comment an insult to city council and staff. "He knows that things down here are very tightly run. We have a very strong finance department, and that kind of assertion is totally uncalled for.

"Here's a man who's saying this is a very serious issue. He was elected to vote, (but) decided that he was going to abstain from voting. He was elected to make decisions just like the rest of us, not to abstain. I think it was a dereliction of his responsibility."

Ellsworth said he abstained from the vote to dismiss Reid because he felt the issue was being rushed, and didn't feel he had enough information on which to base a decision.

"I'm not going to be railroaded by anybody or any process into making any decision on any issue before council if I don't feel that I have enough information," Ellsworth said.

"I'll do the same thing again tomorrow if I think that I'm not informed enough to make that choice or decision."

During the council meeting, Ellsworth also told councillors The Telegram had slanted comments he made regarding Reid's firing and council's decision to name Coun. Debbie Hanlon chairwoman of the internal audit committee - a position he had held until that point.

"The question asked to me by the media was did I think one was related to the other. I said no," Ellsworth said.

In fact, when asked by The Telegram last Thursday whether he thought the two decisions were connected, Ellsworth's response was, "I would hope not. The general public should be concerned if there's any attempt to water down the internal audit committee or the office in any way, shape or form. But if nothing is really changing, only personnel, then it's not really an issue at this point."

During Monday's meeting, Coun. Keith Coombs said he wasn't surprised by Ellsworth's comments in the media.

"He knows that he tried to leave an impression that something is wrong. He's been trying to do that now for nearly three years," Coombs told council. "He's been looking for a smoking gun and can't find one, so then he gets down as low as you can go, and starts talking about the Cameron Inquiry, about the MHA spending scandal, and just lets it go. That's his modus operandi - tear down, tear down, tear down."

Ellsworth seemed unfazed by the argument, and told The Telegram after the meeting was over it was simply "politics at play."

As for himself, he's not worrying about next year's general municipal election until at least next spring, he said, and suggested O'Keefe do the same.

"He should be less worried about the next election, and more worried about running the city right now," he said.

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  • Jeff
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    Interesting stuff, to be sure.

    Glad you are back and I hope you are all healed up.