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Councillors approve code of conduct for local politicians

Attempt to exclude social media from policy fails; code will likely be amended by integrity commissioner

It wasn't easy, but city council managed to approve the first code of conduct for councillors Wednesday, a step required under amendments to the Municipal Act.

Council has until next month to adopt the code, but the process was derailed a bit when bad weather meant new integrity commissioner Robert Swayze was unable to make it to a city meeting last month to answer questions.

Swayze's appearance will be rescheduled, but the code of conduct still has to be passed by March.

And judging by the two-and-a-half hour debate Wednesday, he'll have a lot of questions to deal with.

Carolyn Dawe, the acting deputy city solicitor, said the code was based on research by staff and the code of conducts already adopted by other municipalities. 

“This code was to adopt best practices among municipalities,” Dawe said. 

A draft version of the code was sent to Swayze, who recommended a few changes, which have been included in the final policy.

“The integrity commissioner will be conducting a number of educational seminars,” Dawe said, to help council understand their obligations.

The code applies to all members of city council, as well as boards that have the authority to make spending decisions. As a rule, members of advisory panels don't make those decision, so the code doesn't apply.

“The integrity commissioner has the power to recommend certain sanctions, and council has the power to enforce those sanctions,” Dawe said. 

Penalties include a public reprimand or a 90-day suspension of pay.

While the integrity commissioner recommends sanctions, it's up to city council to make the final decision.

But a few elements of the proposed code raised questions. For example, Ward 12 Coun. Joscelyne Landry-Altmann had questions about rules about gifts and benefits. The policy says councillors can accept tokens and small gifts, but they can't amount to more than $200 in a calendar year or they have to file a disclosure report.

“I'd like a bit more clarity on this,” Landry-Altmann said. “If I accept a plaque or whatever as a gift, do I have to get the value of the plaque (for my disclosure form?)”

And Ward 10 Coun. Fern Cormier said the code seems to conflict with current rules that sees councillors return free tickets people send them. 

“But now I'm reading here that it is permitted,” Cormier said. “There's conflicting language in this document.

“I'm sorry to be nitpicky about this, but this is the type of document where one word can make a difference if there's ... a complaint.”

Dawe said there may be some overlap in some areas, but working with Swayze, councillors can amend the code over time.

Landry-Altmann also wondered whether there would be consequences for people who make “vexatious” complaints.

“Are there any consequences for people who make those complaints?” she asked, especially since taxpayers are funding the work of the integrity commissioner.
Landry-Altmann herself was subject to an incorrect conflict of interest accusation by an opponent of the Kingsway Entertainment District, and spent $10,000 to defend it in court.

“No,” Dawe said, that's not something that any other city has done.

But city clerk Eric Labelle said one of the reasons Swayze was hired is he has experience dealing with these sorts of complaints, and knows how to separate legitimate and frivolous complaints.

“It's important to have someone who will have a common sense approach to this, especially in early days,” Labelle said. 

“That was certain the experience with the city's wrongdoing hotline.”

Council rejected two amendments brought by Ward 5 Coun. Bob Kirwan. He wanted the section dealing with council behaviour on social media deleted. Kirwan has faced several complaints about his Valley East Facebook page.

He also wanted to make public the name of anyone who accuses councillors of wrongdoing.

“Natural justice” usually requires the accused to know who is accusing him or her, Kirwan added.

“If a complaint is made against a councillor, I think they should know who is filing the complaint.”

But Cormier said city policy is almost always not to name people who complain, so that people will feel safe from retribution.

“The first question (from homeowners) is always, who complained about my hedges?” Cormier said. “And bylaw (department) does not reveal that information.”

That amendment was also easily defeated, but one change did pass: Ward 4 Coun. Geoff McCausland said he was surprised the language of the policy wasn't gender neutral, and his amendment to change that was approved easily.


Darren MacDonald

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