17 Pages of Blather

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Snake oilZero point zero zero zero three eight. That’s the percentage of the population of Collingwood who made the effort to comment on council’s much-touted, revised, 17-page code of conduct before it was approved, Monday night. That’s 0.00038%, based on an estimated 21,000 residents. In other words: eight people.

Only eight people out of 21,000 cared enough about council’s efforts to pump the bureaucracy to comment on the proposed code.

Eight people. I hope they were all residents. One, I’m told, was a member of council, so if you take that person out of the equation because that’s what he or she was elected to do, that leaves a mere seven residents commenting. That’s only 0.00033% of the population.

Hardly a tsunami of public engagement.

The rest, I suppose, were more concerned about things that actually matter: taxes, water rates (both of which this council raised), roads, sewers, sidewalks, potholes, parks and so on. These things are, however, not nearly as important to council which prefers to waste its time on grandstanding initiatives like revising the code of conduct.

For eight people it was stirring stuff.

The other 99.962% of us  – 20,992-plus residents – clearly couldn’t give a damn.

Apparently this low response was such an embarrassment that the actual number of respondents is not mentioned anywhere in the staff report. The public just didn’t care. But around the council table, backs were patted and laudatory, saccharine statements were made for having accomplished such another landmark in governance ennui.

And yet, if you read the agenda for September 8 (starts P. 140), you’ll see three pages of comments from this select few were included in the public record, but anonymously. The authors’ names are not shown.

Since when are anonymous comments considered valid in a democratic and public dialogue? Anonymity is secretive: the opposite of openness and transparency in a democracy. Newspapers don’t allow anonymous letters. You can’t make anonymous campaign contributions. Why should the town allow anonymous comments to influence decision making?

How can readers know these comments were actually made by residents if they are anonymous? Or that they were actually made by real people and not cobbled from some internet source or from some private conversations with councillors?

More curious, is that these anonymous comments were given not only consideration, but many were allowed to change the policy even before council was allowed to see or respond to their comments. Staff comments show that wording was changed to suit the demands of the respondents before council could even respond or comment.

Who approved that? Since when do anonymous outsiders determine town policy? Shades of VOTE! You think maybe the only ones who chimed in with a comment were friends of the Politburo?

An anonymous group, seven of whom were not elected, was allowed to determine town policy without any input on their changes from your elected officials. And this is supposed to be a democratic process? An open and transparent process?

If you believe that, you’ve been hoodwinked. You bought the snake oil.

As for the revised code itself, it’s as bad as expected: seventeen pages of blather that repeats content found in other legislation and policies, including:

  • the Municipal Act
  • the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act
  • the Municipal Elections Act
  • the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act
  • the Provincial Offences Act
  • the Ontario Human Rights Code
  • the Criminal Code of Canada
  • the by-laws and policies of Council as adopted and amended from time to time

It even says so in the report. Why council felt a need to repeat content from these laws in yet another stuffy, unreadable document is anyone’s guess (aside, of course, from the self-aggrandizing aspect).

Here are the basic principles of conduct, as stated in the report that should have sufficed:

  • Members to whom this Code of Conduct applies shall serve in a conscientious and
    diligent manner;
  • Members shall be committed to performing their functions with integrity without using
    the influence of their office;
  • Members shall avoid all conflicts of interest;
  • Members are expected to perform their duties of office and to arrange their private
    affairs in a manner that promotes public confidence and will bear close legal and public
    scrutiny;
  • Members are responsible for making honest statements and shall not make any
    statement when they know that statement is false, or with the intent to mislead other Members or the public; and,
  • Members shall serve the public interest by upholding the laws and policies established
    by the Federal Parliament, Ontario Legislature, and the laws and policies adopted by the
    Town.

Add a line saying this binds members of all town-appointed boards and committees, and have a separate gift policy and you could reduce these 17 pages of fluff to a single, substantial page. The rest is filler. Filler that no one will read (clearly this council has not bothered to read the laws noted above, otherwise they might behave very differently…)

Is this, as the deputy mayor crowed Monday night, all about accountability and transparency? Not on your Nelly. That’s just Newspeak. In fact, it is the opposite. The main function of the new code is to remove from the Integrity Commissioner pretty much every reason for him to investigate council behaviour, aside from the value of gifts they receive. In other words, council can be less open and transparent.

It now means the public cannot go to the Integrity Commissioner with any of the many complaints that have been filed against this council to date. This new code protects council from unwanted public scrutiny by de-fanging the IC’s powers to the point where he has no significant function at all.

Councillors can now get away with much more without having to worry about embarrassing reports about their behaviour being aired in public.

And even then, the code says that there may be an informal resolution (section 18.5) – the mechanics of which remain – frighteningly – undefined.

So much for accountability.

I’ll repeat what I said in an earlier post: if councillors need 17 additional pages of rules and regulations to make sure each other is honest and ethical, then they probably weren’t honest and ethical to start with. No amount of paperwork will make people honest. Integrity is not forced upon people from the outside: it is within us. Or not, as the revised code suggests.

This whole exercise was just a pretense to make it look like councillors are actually doing something when they’re really just fiddling and farting about while the real business of municipal governance is ignored or conducted behind closed doors.

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