By Pauline Kerr
To read some of recent reports from integrity commissioners in this province, one gets an impression of a fire-spewing dragon who can produce horrifying roars and blasts of sulphurous breath. Unfortunately, it seems the dragon has no teeth.
Ontario municipalities are required to provide access to an independent and impartial integrity commissioner who reviews, investigates and advises on issues regarding a municipality’s code of conduct. That code of conduct applies to members of council, local boards and committees of council.
Integrity commissioners can, and do, produce scathing reports on those who violate municipal codes of conduct, and can recommend a penalty varying from a reprimand to suspension of pay for 90 days. However, the integrity commissioner cannot remove an elected municipal official. No one can, except voters, once every four years.
Considering the amount of damage a municipal councillor can do in four years, there is a growing move afoot to give the dragon some teeth.
The judicial inquiry in Collingwood into the 50 per cent sale of Collingwood Utility Services Corporation has cost millions of dollars to date.
It goes beyond finances. Disagreements among council members, obnoxious behaviour, use of foul language, bullying and harassment inevitably result in highly qualified people quitting, be it from staff or elected positions.
The world of municipal staff is a small one; finding staff with the right combination of education, expertise and experience is difficult at best, but for a municipality with a reputation of toxicity, it can be a nightmare.
Many municipalities are already finding it difficult to get good candidates to seek public office. The last municipal election saw far too many councils with vacant seats and people acclaimed to positions.
In smaller, rural municipalities where the salaries councillors receive are modest, some candidates seek election as a stepping stone to provincial or federal politics, but most are community-minded people who feel a responsibility to share their time and talent for the good of the area in which they live.
An environment where council meetings regularly devolve into shouting matches, and where staff and council members are bullied, is not likely to encourage people to seek election.
West Nipissing council became so divided that four councillors refused to attend meetings, effectively blocking the business of council from proceeding. The CAO refused to allow staff to attend council meetings because of the toxicity.
And then there is the case of Ottawa council member Rick Chiarelli, who had his salary suspended by that city’s integrity commissioner for 450 days over complaints of sexual harassment from three job applicants and two former staff members.
Despite outrageous behaviour that would get any municipal employee fired, the man is back to collecting his salary and is accused once again of the same kind of disgusting treatment of female employees that got the integrity commissioner called in previously.
As long as behaviour does not land an offender behind bars, they can remain on council, no matter what the integrity commissioner says or does – and no matter how much chaos the offender creates.
The dragon does indeed need teeth. To date, efforts to provide some have consisted of private member’s bills that have gone nowhere. Municipal council members remain accountable only to the voters.
With a municipal election taking place this fall, the onus is on us to ensure our elected officials behave themselves. It is our responsibility to see that the right people are encouraged to run for office, and that we ask astute questions during the campaign.
It means making sure we know how municipal government works, and what qualities make a good council member in the year 2022. It means making informed decisions, and maybe looking past the good old boys who continue to get elected because everyone knows them and they promise lower taxes, and considering the newcomer who has a more realistic view of what the municipality needs.
If we, the voters, do our job properly, we may find there is less need for a dragon with teeth.