Integrity on Council, part 1

Political scandals are so common now that we’ve come to expect them of our elected officials. While federal and provincial political scandals are often personal (allegations of sexual misconduct, prejudicial comments, or other questionable behaviour), municipal scandals tend to be a bit more technical and procedural, usually oriented around a real or perceived conflict of interest.

So what do we do to avoid a conflict of interest? Here’s an overview of the role of the Integrity Commissioner. I’ll go through the Code of Conduct in parts 2 and 3, and I’ll wrap up with a few thoughts on public trust.

The Integrity Commissioner

One of the first things we did as a new Council (even before we were inaugurated) was to attend a training session with our Integrity Commissioner. Their job is to provide education and advice to keep us in line, and to investigate when we step out of line. Brighton is required to have an Integrity Commissioner (IC) on retainer: the Ontario Ombudsman can fulfill some functions if necessary, but having an IC is also a huge benefit, because we get the benefit of their direct advice. (Full disclosure: I had some of the details of this paragraph wrong, and our IC sent me an email to correct me! Their advice is invaluable, and their service is excellent.)

Our IC is a firm called Principles Integrity, made up of two retired lawyers with extensive experience in the municipal sector. They understand the legal and ethical issues very well, and they also understand the role that Councillors play within the municipal system. They’re principled and fair, but also realistic and experienced (but not cynical): they know how politics works, and the difference between useful guidelines and tyrannical requirements. Their goal is to maintain and maximize public trust without unduly bogging down the work of council.

Janice Atwood-Petkovski and Jeffrey Abrams of Principles Integrity, a partnership that serves as Brighton’s integrity commissioner. Photo taken from a Toronto Star article about how Atwood and Abrams quit the Toronto District School Board on principle after the Board refused to follow the rules of public disclosure.

Truth, and Reconciliation

Our IC was very blunt about their approach: they’re not here to instill fear in us or punish us, but rather to help us to avoid turning mistakes into scandals. Because whether a scandal is a mistake about some detail in a complicated system, or whether it’s an intentional breach of the law that requires a police investigation, the resulting breach of public trust can often be more serious than the offense itself. So when one of us makes a mistake, the IC will give us advice about how to repair the damage and avoid making it worse.

That doesn’t mean that guilty parties won’t face sanctions (up to 90 days loss of pay) or in the worst of circumstances, a referral to the police or a court. But the way that they approach the issue is rooted in that underlying desire to maintain the public trust, to show residents that the systems work and that they can rely upon us as a whole even when one of us fails. Integrity is about bringing an issue into the light, and being direct about restitution, reconciliation, and restoration.

The real punishment for any ethical infraction is to our reputation: whether or not an infraction results in any sanctions, just the fact that the Integrity Commissioner is called in can be enough to do significant harm to the reputation and re-electability of a Councillor. This can also be a problem, and one that the IC is aware of: a complaint against a Councillor may be politically motivated. All the more reason for the IC to take the approach of proactively addressing issues to avoid complaints and maintain confidence in Council as a whole.

If we can avoid ethical breaches through the proper training and giving due attention to the protocols, that’s great! If we make a mistake or bad choice, the sky doesn’t fall; there’s room in the system to return to the right path, unless a law has been broken and the police need to be involved. If at any point a Councillor gets the advice of the IC, and follows it, that’s the best defense: I did this incorrectly, but I’ve sought the advice of the Integrity Commissioner and followed it, which is why I have disclosed my breach, apologized, and made any appropriate restitution, etc.

At that point the best case scenario is that Council can carry on with the business of advancing the community, and public trust in the system is upheld or restored.

In the next posts I’ll talk about the Council Code of Conduct!

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