August 29, 2012

Councillors could lose pay for breaking Code

As published in The Erin Advocate

Town Council will discuss a new Code of Conduct for themselves next month, which could result in councillors having their pay suspended for up to 90 days if they breach it.

A draft of the Code was presented to Council in April by former Town Manager Lisa Hass, and a revised version came up at the August meeting. Discussion was deferred to the September 25 meeting, but not before Mayor Lou Maieron expressed reservations about such a Code.

He said existing laws are sufficient to regulate local politicians. These include the Municipal Act, the Town's Procedural Bylaw, other Ontario statutes on conflict of interest, elections and privacy, and the Criminal Code. The Code of Conduct is an option that allows municipalities to set further standards.

"A written Code of Conduct helps to ensure that the members of Council share a common basis of acceptable conduct," the draft says. "These standards should serve to enhance public confidence that the Town's elected and appointed representatives operate from a base of integrity, justice and courtesy...It is not intended to replace personal ethics."

Other towns have adopted such Codes, including Caledon, where investigations are done by an Integrity Commissioner. In Erin, it is proposed to have investigations by a "Special Committee made up of persons not directly involved in the complaint". They would review the complaint form, written submissions and background documents, and interview witnesses.

In Caledon, there's a $125 fee for making a complaint, which is refunded so long as the complaint is not frivolous, vexatious or not made in good faith. It is also not refunded if it turns out that there was no offence, or that the offence was trivial, unavoidable, or "committed through inadvertence or an error of judgement made in good faith."

The Erin process would include opportunity to resolve the complaint informally. Council would be advised in a confidential report of any formal complaints, but the public would not be informed unless the Committee finds that there was a breach of the Code. Then there would be a public report to the full council, including recommendations on a penalty.

In addition to other consequence imposed by law, the Municipal Act allows these penalties for Code violations: a reprimand; repaying money received; returning a gift or benefit; a requested apology; removal from a local Board or Committee; or suspension of pay for up to 90 days.

Here are some highlights of the proposed provisions:

• Members must not make false or misleading statements.

• Members must not use their influence of office for other than official duties.

• Members must not accept fees or gifts related to their duties, for themselves or their families, unless permitted by various exceptions. These include gifts of social protocol, legal political donations, volunteer work, benefits provided by other governments, and food at community events.

• Confidential information and details of in-camera meetings must not be released, or used for personal gain.

• Town property, equipment, supplies and on-duty staff must not be used for personal purposes, including a re-election campaign.

• "Members shall conduct themselves with decorum at Council...Respect for delegations and for fellow members and staff requires that all members show courtesy and not distract from the business of Council during presentations and when other members have the floor."

• Unless business is legally required to dealt with in closed session, members are to conduct their duties in an "open and transparent manner", so that the public "can view the process and rationale which was used to reach decisions."

• Members are to communicate council decisions accurately to the media and public, even if they disagree with them, in order to maintain respect for and integrity in the decision process. "A member should  refrain from making disparaging comments about Members of Council and Council's processes and decisions."

• No member shall borrow money from any person who regularly does business with the Town (except banks), or accept payment or benefits in exchange for referring business to any person or company.

• Members must show respect for staff and not interfere with their duties.

• "Members shall conduct themselves with appropriate decorum at all times. As leaders in the community, members are held to a higher standard of behaviour and accordingly their behaviour should be exemplary."