Greater Sudbury's new integrity commissioner, Robert Swayze, made his first appearance at city council Tuesday night, and made it clear he hopes it will be his last.
Swayze said that, other than his presentation at Tom Davies Square, he'll only be back in town if he's conducting an investigation.
“So it's not a good thing when I show up,” he said.
Swayze detailed his “approach to ethical rules” in a 40-minute presentation, outlining what authority he has and the limits of what he can do.
“Nobody can appeal my decision,” he said. “(Although) I have been taken to court for judicial review.”
The maximum penalty he can impose is to suspend a councillor found to have violated the code of conduct for 90 days without pay. On a lesser scale, he can issue a reprimand. In any event, it is up to city council whether to enforce the penalty.
“I can't order anyone to do anything.”
He's already had a taste of the passion some people in Sudbury have for municipal politics, with residents calling and emailing him already.
“I'm sure we're going to have a lot of fun over the next few years,” Swayze quipped. “I do have the greatest respect for members of council – you have low salary, hard work. I really do respect you very much.”
He doesn't initiate investigations, he said, only responds to complaints. Anyone can make a complaint – residents, staff or council as a whole. About half of the complaints he receives are dismissed quickly, he said, because they are beyond his jurisdiction.
Often he receives complaints about staff, but his powers covers council and members of local boards.
One of the common complaints he gets are about new councillors who don't quite understand that, while city council has the power to make a wide range of decisions, an individual councillor has no power on their own.
New councillors often approach staff directly and ask them to change policies, install stop signs, etc. Instead, he said councillors should work to convince their colleagues to support them.
“They say, 'you don't understand, I was elected to do this,'” Swayze said. “Any direction for staff must come from council.
“Use your energy to convince other members of council to support you. Don't start yelling at staff.”
His presentation covered issues that he does rule on, such as violating confidentiality from closed-door meetings and when you can accept gifts from developers.
“Don't embarrass yourself by refusing a (coffee) mug,” Swayze said. “If you want to have lunch with a developer, have lunch. It's your job to deal with developers.
But don't be seen with the same developer all the time. I will come down on you.”
And if a councillor wants to criticize a member of city staff, you have to do it behind closed doors, not in public.
“Don't yell at the crossing guard,” he said. “Don't impugn (a staff member's) integrity in public.”
The rules for social media, such as Facebook pages run by Ward 5 Coun. Bob Kirwan, is to clearly identify yourself and whether you are acting in your role as councillor. Don't create burner accounts to attack people or misrepresent yourself.
And if you have a Facebook page to communicate with your constituents, resist the urge to block people — mute them instead.
“I've had complaints about people being blocked from from these sites,” Swayze said. “Learn about muting, instead of blocking.”
While he's not city council's lawyer, if they are unsure about something, they should ask him for an opinion before they do it, rather than potentially having problems later.
“Send me an email, and I'll answer you right away.”
He won't deal with criminal complaints — “I advise the complainant to talk with police” and is able to dismiss vexatious complaints quickly.
If found guilty of violating the code of conduct, a councillor is advised of the decisions and sanctions before it's released to the public.
The final report goes to council and the media at the same time, he added.
Greater Sudbury hired Swayze last year to conform with provincial legislation giving cities until this month to hire someone. He'll work on a retainer and will be paid an hourly rate when his services are needed.
“We hope not to see you again,” Mayor Brian Bigger joked at the end of the presentation.