OTTAWA -- Ottawa councillor Jan Harder has resigned as chair of the city's powerful planning committee after the city's integrity commissioner found she violated council's code of conduct.

Speaking at council Wednesday, Harder blamed "hyper-aggressive online attacks and libel" directed at her and others, which she said threaten to curtail the committee's work.

"I will not allow the endless noise and innuendo amplified online to railroad the important work the committee must accomplish," the Barrhaven councillor said, adding that it appears to be an "organized campaign from an agenda-driven lobby group."

Integrity Commissioner Robert Marleau issued a report late last week, saying Harder's relationship with a planning consultant and his daughter "tainted" the city's planning and development process.

Harder's pay won't be docked

Harder resigned from planning committee, but she won’t face sanctions the integrity commissioner recommended. Those included losing 15 days of pay, having to reimburse the city for her legal expenses and declaring four months of free work in the city’s gift registry.

After Harder resigned, Mayor Jim Watson introduced a motion that did not include those measures. The mayor said Harder resigning her seat on planning committee was punishment enough.

The motion passed 14-9 after heated debate that exposed sharp divisions on council, with some councillors suggesting there is a double-standard for those who support the mayor and those who generally oppose him.

““There are two sets of rules for this council. There are the rules that apply to members of the Watson club, and there are the rules that apply to the rest of us,” Coun. Diane Deans said. “And frankly, if you’re a member of the Watson club, there are no consequences for your actions.”

Deans said the rules have to apply fairly to everyone.

“That's why we have an integrity commissioner. If we are going to cherry-pick when the rules apply and to which members of council then there is no point of having an integrity commissioner at all."

Coun. Catherine McKenney said the motion asked council to say “nothing went wrong here.”

“It is so obvious that there are two sets of rules at the city. Two sets.”

Council later added a reprimand to the motion, but the other penalties remained excluded.

Watson defended council's response to the report in a news conference after the meeting.

"When the integrity commissioner tables a report, council doesn't simply rubber stamp it. It makes a decision, and in this case sections of the integrity commissioner's report were accepted by a majority on council, and other parts were not."

Watson said he did not ask Harder to resign, but he supported her decision.

The investigation

Marleau's report said a member of the public filed a formal complaint in April 2020, alleging a "triangular" relationship between Harder, President of the Stirling Group Jack Stirling, and Stirling’s daughter Alison Clarke, who served as a councillor's assistant in Harder's office.

Harder told council Wednesday there was "no violation in hiring practices, no violation of the municipal conflict of interest act, and no evidence of any conflict of interest."

However, she also apologized to council.

"To my colleagues, I recognize this has put you all in a difficult position. That was never my wish, and for that I am sorry."

Harder had chaired planning committee since 2014. She also resigned Wednesday from the municipal lands development corporation and the city's planning advisory committee.

Harder told the investigation she had known Stirling for 23 years, and considered him a friend and mentor with respect to planning matters.

Clarke worked in Harder's office from Aug. 14, 2017 to July 20, 2018. The investigator's report said Clarke then worked as a contractor for the Stirling Group, working with Harder's office.

Harder told the investigator, "I always ensured that Alison Stirling not only had no input on applications with which her father Jack was associated, but that she simply didn't see them. Her employment was always made known to the public, and was fully transparent."

In addition to recommending Harder be removed as chair of the planning committee, a role she's held since 2014, Marleau also recommended that her pay be suspended for 15 days.

In 2020, council approved stiff penalties, including lengthy pay suspensions, on Coun. Rick Chiarelli following two reports from Marleau into allegations of harassment and inappropriate behaviour towards women working in his office or applying for jobs, allegations Chiarelli has consistently denied.