December 18, 2013

It’s not too late for respect at council

As published in The Erin Advocate

The public needs to demand that elected officials employ good judgement, even during bitter disagreements.

In the current controversy surrounding the Code of Ethics, Mayor Lou Maieron is tearing down confidence in the Town administration and council. His behaviour appears destructive and out of proportion to the problems at hand.

He may have legitimate concerns, but he is going too far, spinning endless arguments and alienating the very people whose cooperation he needs. His reputation has been damaged by the findings of the Integrity Commissioner. He believes himself to be a hero of democracy and the victim of a conspiracy, and he has promised to escalate the battle.

The Commissioner described his recommended penalties as “corrective action”, but they do not seem to be having any effect. Maieron has not apologized for harm he has caused to individuals, or to the reputation and functioning of the Town.

No council member can be removed from office for violating the Code of Ethics.

Three councillors poured some gasoline on the fire recently by voting to deny the mayor a payment related to his trip to China. They may have had some justification, if he did not communicate to them adequately about his potential travel plans, but it seems a bit vindictive, considering how little he normally spends.

Perhaps a Christmas truce is in order, followed by a renewed effort by the mayor, fellow councillors and senior staff to improve their working relationships. Councillor John Brennan said reconciliation is needed to avoid a “mini-war” for the rest of the term, but that will require a sincere commitment from individuals to restore respect and make concessions.

It is a lot to ask, but it would be in the public interest, and it is not too late.

A majority of council has agreed with Integrity Commissioner John Craig’s recommendation to hire a facilitator to help set a “path to a more co-operative working relationship”. Maybe our new Integrity Commissioner Robert Williams would be up to that task.

While I have been critical of the mayor, I do agree with some of his criticisms of the Code of Conduct concept and this investigation in particular.

The Code provides for an initial informal phase, to try to resolve the complaint, and informal resolution is encouraged even in the formal phase. This may not have been practical, but there is no indication it was attempted.

I understand the need for confidentiality in the early stages of an investigation, so that frivolous complaints cannot be used to damage a councillor’s reputation. But once the commissioner rules that it is legitimate, I think the complaint, with the names of the accuser and defendant, should be made public. This would make it easier for the commissioner to obtain relevant evidence.

In this investigation, the mayor was given very short time frames to produce evidence in response to the allegations, until he insisted on his right to more time. Also, the commissioner was unnecessarily harsh in painting a portrait of the mayor. He should have avoided personality analysis and stuck closer to the evidence as he saw it.

The Code is not understood and respected by the public. Defendants do not have the rights they would have in a court case, regarding disclosure of evidence and cross-examination of witnesses. This harms the perception of fairness.

Instead of establishing of a Code of Conduct for all municipalities, and funding its enforcement, the provincial government has shifted that optional responsibility to the local level. It means a commissioner may be hired by a councillor’s political adversaries.

That’s not to say the conclusions of this commissioner were wrong, but it would be better to have a system in which that person’s independence is far beyond any possible question.