A nasty fight has erupted on the Toronto Police Services Board.
On Tuesday, lawyers for board vice-chair Councillor Michael Thompson filed a legal application alleging that the board is attempting to silence his public criticism of Chief Bill Blair.
At the centre of the dispute are comments Thompson made last month to the Toronto Star, which quoted him in a February 12 article as saying he would not support renewing Blair's contract when it expires next spring. "We need fresh blood," the councillor told the paper, citing concerns over what he said was a "staggering" number of strip searches conducted by the force last year and the chief's failure to curb department spending.
According to the application filed by lawyer Clayton Ruby, board members Dhun Noria and Marie Moliner complained about Thompson's comments to board chair Alok Mukherjee the day the article came out, and Mukherjee put the issue on the agenda of the board's meeting the following day.
The application says Thompson was not given a copy of the complaint and didn't attend the meeting because the board's lawyer advised him to stay away, and Mukherjee recused himself because he also criticized the chief in the same Star article.
Four members of the seven-member board debated the complaint and afterward sent a letter to Thompson informing him that the board had determined his comments might be a "potential breach" of the board's code of conduct, and that they would request the Ministry of the Solicitor General to investigate.
The letter urged the councillor to not to participate in any matters involving Blair and instead stick to "the organizational interests of the Toronto Police Service."
But Ruby argues Blair's performance and the "organizational interests" of the force are one and the same, and that Thompson had the right to comment because it's the board's mandate to provide civilian oversight to the cops.
"The whole point is the chief is supposed to run the Toronto Police Services. And if he's not doing his job, making that public is the organizational interest of the Toronto police board," said Ruby in an interview. "I don't know how they can want him not to talk about this, unless just they don't like the content of what he said."
John Sewell, head of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, doesn't think Thompson did anything wrong.
"I want members of the police services board to talk publicly about issues of policing. Obviously one issue of policing is what happens to the chief," says Sewell, a former mayor of Toronto. "I think it should be a matter of public debate."
Sewell notes that an independent review of the G20 summit recently recommended the board play a stronger role in overseeing the force.
Thompson's application for a judicial review by the Ontario Divisional Court names Noria, Moliner, the board, and the ministry of the solicitor general as respondents. It asks the court quash the decision that found Thompson may have violated the code of conduct, and to prohibit the ministry from investigating the councillor.
It alleges that the board's decision was "fatally flawed" because Noria and Moliner's complaint was never written down and Thompson wasn't given a chance to defend himself. Board policy that states all complaints "will be received in writing" and accused members "will be permitted to provide a written response."
The document also alleges that it was improper for Moliner and Noria to vote on a complaint they had made to the board.
Thompson did not immediately return a request for comment, and a spokesperson for the board said that Noria and Moliner had requested that Mukherjee respond to all media requests on their behalf. The same spokesperson said that Mukherjee would not be commenting because the matter is before the courts.
This is the second time this year that Blair has been at the centre of public controversy. Last week he asked the Ontario Provincial Police to take over supervision of the ongoing investigation into Rob Ford after the mayor and his brother, Councillor Doug Ford, accused him of carrying out a political vendetta against them. Blair denies the allegation.