The Council Code of Conduct is a thorough set of guidelines that, if followed, should more than keep us out of trouble; it should keep us respectful, united, and productive. (For more info on what happens if we step out of line, see part 1 on the Integrity Commissioner.)
The Code of Conduct
The Council Code of Conduct is our guideline for how to integrate and implement all of our governing legislation in our personal and collective behaviour. In many places it goes above and beyond the law to ensure that we are thoroughly diligent and accountable. Here are some specific rules:
- Avoidance of Conflicts of Interest:
This is a common issue, but it’s also very commonly misunderstood!
A conflict of interest occurs when I, or someone I’m close to (like a relative or friend or business partner), have a personal interest in a matter being addressed by Council. Some cases are very clear-cut: is Council going to award a contract to MY business? That’s a clear conflict. My son’s business? Also a clear conflict. My brother‘s business? Not actually specifically mentioned by the relevant legislation – but it IS mentioned by our Code of Conduct.
But we all have common interests that might be a “non-disqualifying interest.” For example, if we were choosing which roads to pave, and I voted to pave the cul-de-sac where I live with only two neighbours instead of the long road with 100 houses on it, that would be a conflict; but if I live on that road with 100 other houses, I would have a “non-disqualifying interest”: the decision wouldn’t benefit me to the exclusion of many others, so I wouldn’t be disqualified from participating in making that decision. This is important, because most of what we do for our community also benefits us, at least indirectly; if I could never derive any benefit from any decision I make as a councillor, I could never make any decisions at all.
The way to avoid a conflict of interest is to declare and file a record of any interest I have in a matter, even a non-disqualifying interest. If it’s a disqualifying interest, then I must recuse myself from that discussion and decision by declaring the nature of my “pecuniary interest” before Council discusses the issue. If there’s any question of whether or not I should be disqualified, the Integrity Commissioner is available to give advice.
It’s worth noting here that these rules are about ensuring that Council members can be impartial, not whether or not they could possibly benefit from something. Because we might benefit from a decision, we have incentive to make that decision in ways that are beneficial to us, and therefore cannot be impartial; even a “deemed interest” can be disqualifying, i.e., the very appearance of a conflict of interest is enough to disqualify us from participating in some decisions! It’s the way that the incentive affects our ability to be impartial that’s important. But it doesn’t follow that any time a councillor personally benefits from a decision that Council makes, that something untoward has happened; a happy and thriving councillor is not evidence of misdeeds. I sincerely hope that we will all benefit from the decisions of Council.
- Gifts, Benefits and Hospitality:
Receiving gifts from someone, particularly expensive or prestigious gifts, makes me feel all warm and fuzzy toward them, maybe making me unable to be impartial about matters that pertain to them. The short answer is that I shouldn’t receive gifts from anyone (so please don’t offer me any!).
The longer version is that there’s a chart indicating what constitutes a gift, benefit, or hospitality, and at what level it must be disclosed (paperwork!) or refused. Yes, you can buy me a coffee or lunch without breaking any rules (and I’ll happily return the favour!); but don’t give me an expensive bottle of booze, or wine and dine me over $100, or I’ll have to disclose it. And if you buy me a $500 meal, gift, tickets, etc, I’ll have to refuse it.
This means that I will never again get to stay on the island of my longtime family friend, the Aga Khan. That would be “hospitality” that goes far beyond the $750 limit for “business hospitality” in the chart. While I’m kidding about knowing the Aga Khan (I don’t), when Justin Trudeau got in trouble for visiting his island a few years back, the question of whether or not his visit was allowed is legitimate: “business hospitality” implies business, and Trudeau claimed a longtime family friendship and that the visit was strictly personal, which would be allowed. Where this became problematic, then, is because his visit was deemed to be a conflict: partisan politics has created an atmosphere wherein a politician can’t go on vacation without being accused of moral failure, and he should have anticipated that (no matter how sad it is that we need to).
- Member’s Expenses:
Councillors may submit expenses for reimbursement, including things like travel, conference fees, etc. We have a very specific list of what is an acceptable expense, and municipal staff won’t issue reimbursements for things that aren’t eligible; but it’s still on us to accurately report what we spent the money on.
Where this gets a little more dicey is when we’re working with community groups and committees, especially to raise money. If we are appointed to a committee or working on a joint project with service clubs, etc., our expenses related to that can count; but there are very strict rules about how we go about fundraising, and the short of it is that we should never touch cash. So if you want me to be on your committee, I’ll happily do so, but I won’t be your treasurer. It’s just extra complicated.
- Confidential Information:
Many things that Council deliberates on are confidential, and will be discussed in “closed session”, meaning a session of Council that is not open to the public. These sessions are recorded, and that footage can be reviewed by the Integrity Commissioner, but no minutes are taken for public record. Anything confidential like this can not be released. It doesn’t matter if I disagree with it, if I think the public needs to know, etc.; if Council in its wisdom decides that a matter needs to be kept confidential, I can’t talk about it with anyone who isn’t also on Council, period. Not with my wife, lawyer, therapist, or priest.
Usually, confidential matters are related to “items under litigation, negotiation, or personnel matters; information that infringes on the rights of others (e.g., complaints…); price schedules in contract tender…; information deemed to be ‘personal information’…; and statistical data required by law not to be released….”
- Use of Municipal Resources
Councillors potentially have access to a lot of municipal resources, but we can’t use them for personal use. I can’t drive a vehicle from the Brighton fleet if my car breaks down; I can’t use the Municipality’s website to promote my business; and really, I probably shouldn’t put any games on my Council-issued iPad.
I also can’t use any public property for your benefit: I can’t use my position or public resources to promote your business, even for things like promotions or events that I might think residents should hear about. (Grand openings and the like are allowed.)
- Election Campaigns:
It should be obvious that incumbents (people who are already serving on Council) should not use municipal resources to promote themselves for re-election; but it isn’t always obvious what that means. This section lays out very specific boundaries for what incumbent candidates must do to avoid using municipal resources in their campaign, but the gist is that we can’t use any municipally-owned properties, facilities, or communication channels for our campaign materials or events.
The part of this that always frustrates me at the provincial and federal levels is that governments have a tendency toward passing very popular and important legislation in election years, just before the campaign begins. Sometimes it is little short of bribery, with governments passing legislation that won’t take effect unless and until they’re re-elected. Thankfully this doesn’t work at the municipal level: we don’t have a party system, and at least in theory all sitting councillors who seek re-election are running against each other, so there’s no personal advantage to doing this. That said, councillor behaviour often changes in an election year, and you can sometimes spot a difference between the behaviour of those who are seeking re-election and those who are not; it’s beneficial to make ourselves stand out on Council in its final few months if we want to win our seat again. This might be intentional, or it might not; it isn’t technically against any law or code of conduct; and I don’t know of any way to guard against it structurally, but it’s something residents should be aware of. If I start grandstanding in an election year, please send me a message to gently remind me that I should strive for consistency, and work just as hard every year as I do in election years. (It’s also common to see any tensions that might exist on Council to boil over in an election year, but I’ve written enough about the importance of avoiding negative campaigning.)
- Improper Use of Influence
“Do you know who I am?” Whenever someone says that in a movie, you know they’re either the bad guy or they’re about to get their comeuppance (or both). The fact of the matter is that the title of Councillor doesn’t actually afford me any privileges outside of the Council chambers. At least, it isn’t supposed to. If I’m leveraging it for any special influence or privilege, I’m out of line. It isn’t license to stick my nose into other people’s business, it doesn’t permit me to manage municipal staff (or anyone else), and I don’t get to speak on behalf of the municipality in the press or anywhere else (that’s what the Mayor is for). Unless I’m in a Council meeting (or a committee thereof), I’m just Jeff.
Included in this is the idea of using my position to imply that I can do things for people that I can’t or shouldn’t do. I can’t get a public works project or planning process sped up for you, I can’t get you a job at the municipality, I can’t get a municipal contract for your firm; those aren’t things I actually have the power to do, and if I were trying to do them for you I would be in violation of a few of the above rules.
- Business Relations:
I can’t use my position on Council to secure myself a job, contract, loan, etc., and I can’t have any job that pays me to liaise with Council. I can’t borrow money from anyone who does regular business with the municipality, as that gives them leverage over me and my vote. I can’t make referrals in exchange for payment or personal benefit. Basically, my business and Council business have to remain entirely separate in order for me to remain impartial.
- Member Conduct:
Councillors are to conduct themselves in a dignified, open, and cooperative manner at Council meetings. This should go without saying, but it’s an issue surprisingly often: the political climate we live in often rewards elected representatives who “fight” for a particular issue, and getting into the newspaper for an outburst in a Council meeting can win as many political “points” as it can lose. But it shouldn’t happen.
- Media Communications:
We have to keep confidential matters confidential, of course; and we must communicate accurately about what happens in Council meetings. We cannot disparage one another in media communications, and when we communicate about decisions in which we may have disagreed and voted against the majority we must still uphold the will of Council as a whole. Once Council makes a decision, no matter how we voted on it, we support it and move on.
There are a few paragraphs in the commentary on this point that pertain directly to this blog, so here they are in full:
“While Members are encouraged to actively participate in vigorous debate, Members should understand that they are part of a democratically-elected representative body and should not engage in social media as if they are outsiders. In this regard, caution should be exercised when blogging, posting, tweeting, re-posting and linking to posts using social media, whether the member is using a personal account or a Municipal account.
“Members who post blogs should recognize that the Canadian Association of Journalists has identified the ethical conflict faced by journalists holding elected public office. It is recognized that there is an irreconcilable conflict in holding both roles.
“While social media can be an excellent tool for communicating quickly with constituents and sharing ideas and obtaining input, social media can breed incivility that generally is avoided in face-to-face interactions. In a world where a transitory comment can become part of the permanent record, Members should exercise restraint in reacting too quickly, or promoting the social media posts of others whose views may be disparaging of Council’s decisions or another Member’s perspectives.”
Regarding the conflict of interest between journalism and holding public office, I hope that it is clear to all readers of this blog that I am not reporting the news; I’m offering explanatory posts about our municipal structures and processes, and perhaps some commentary. I am by no means a journalist, and I go out of my way to link to real journalism as well as official sources for any claims that I make. Please, always take the official source over my word. That includes taking the word of Staff over mine; while Council may technically be over Staff in the hierarchy, Staff are the experts who can speak most authoritatively on all things municipal.
As for participating in social media, it should be clear to all elected officials at this point that a social media faux pas that someone else could get away with or shrug off in a day can end a political career. I generally participate in social media as an attempt to make it a better place, because I’m trying to do what I can to reverse the trend of politics and public discourse being dominated by combative, populist, conspiracy-theory-laden fury.
We’re only halfway through the Code of Conduct. More to come!