An Honourable Mayor?

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DilbertMayor Brian Saunderson has announced he is running for nomination to the provincial Progressive Conservative party in our riding to be able to stand as the candidate for MPP. According  to a story in Collingwood Today, he is not stepping down from his role as mayor, and will not do so even if he wins the nomination:

Should Saunderson receive the nomination, he said he would not be stepping back from his duties as mayor of Collingwood unless he were to be successful and elected in 2022.

I believe that this poses a threat of both real and perceived conflicts of interest and that an honourable, ethical politician should step down immediately after announcing his or her candidacy to another office. Here’s why:

Being mayor is a full-time role even though it is paid as a part-time job. The mayor cannot decide at any time not to be mayor and act as an individual or claim his acts were personal, not official. The Municipal Act does not allow that. The same holds true as a county council member: he is always a representative of the county, even when away from the county council.

A specific date for the local nomination meeting has not yet been set, however Saunderson said the riding association is planning to have it done by the beginning of April.

Saunderson will be in campaign mode from now until the provincial election in June, 2022. Stepping down as mayor shortly before the next municipal election does not absolve him of public scrutiny over his potential conflicts before then. No one can be effective and diligent serving as mayor, county councillor, and outside political candidate and still fulfill the expectations of all three.

And shouldn’t every member of a municipal council be non-partisan? Municipal mayors and councillors do not run for election on party lines. Declaring openly your allegiance to a party, and then serving (should he win) as the party’s nominee is certainly very partisan and in opposition to what I have always believed is the spirit of fair, non-partisan municipal politics.

Saunderson will be campaigning for support and funding for both his nomination and, if he wins it, for his provincial election campaign. During the next 18 months, he or his team will approach individuals and businesses for donations and support. Some of these will be companies that bid for or provide services for the Town of Collingwood or Simcoe County. These may include local engineering and contracting firms, waste management, construction, automobile vendors, and so on. No one will not see him as aw-shucks-plain-old-Brian-the wannabe-MPP: they will see him as the influential mayor of the municipality who also sits on the county council. 

Saunderson’s team during both his campaigns should also be considered as his business associates when considering conflicts of interest. Politics is not a recreation: a campaign is a business venture with large financial rewards for winners at the upper tiers. And some of those team members will be paid for their participation, not simply be volunteers. This adds yet another layer of potential conflict to his position.

In essence, following his announcement, Saunderson became a lobbyist for himself and his party. One has to wonder if he has listed himself as such on the town’s lobbyist registry. Methinks not. And did Saunderson discuss the potential conflicts with the town’s Integrity Commissioner as would be appropriate according to the judicial inquiry’s recommendations? The reporter does not say (nor is it clear if she even asked him).

Town and county staff, as well as municipal staff and politicians throughout the riding, will also be aware of Saunderson’s announcement. That puts them in a precarious place if one of his donors raises their political allegiance for Saunderson during service, contract, or bidding processes. Even if not raised, it may be known via other means. If staff are aware of the political leanings of service providers, they are in a difficult position because any decision they make could be seen as a politically-motivated choice. This becomes far more of a mucilaginous pit for them to traverse should he win the nomination but continue on as mayor.

I would argue too, that for purposes of conflict determination, a campaign donor should be considered a close business relationship. After all, the donation is to support the candidate, not simply a party.

Clearly, it would be a pecuniary conflict of interest, both real and apparent,  if Saunderson remains at the table and is involved in the discussions around or voting on any tender, contract, or RFP (Request For Proposal). Any of the competing firms for a job or contract could be potential donors to his campaign. He should not even be involved in discussing tendering a job because it could provide him inside information that might be disclosed, even accidentally, to a potential donor.

If he (as he should) declares a potential conflict every time a business issue arises with a potential for conflict, that would take the mayor away from the table for a large part of the town’s operations. Resigning as mayor now would merely remove him from the remaining bits. And it would appear to the public as the honourable and ethical decision.

If he remains mayor, it will surely look like influence peddling to those watching him campaign — both by him and his team and by those looking to garner favours if they support him. That would stink of corruption and overt favouritism: the public would never be able to believe some sort of preferential treatment was not given to the firm winning a town or county contract.

And if Saunderson cannot fathom the quagmire of potential conflict and corruption this represents, even if only in the public perception, then he does not have the political acumen to be in any office.

Perhaps more troubling than his unbridled ambition to climb the slippery political pole without regard to public opinion is what appears to be his utter disregard for the findings of his beloved judicial inquiry. The final report railed on and on about apparent and real conflicts of interest and the need for council members to be aware of and avoid them. For example, let me quote a few lines from the inquiry’s final report:

Undisclosed conflicts, unfair procurements, and lack of transparency stained both transactions, leading to fair and troubling concerns from the public … When the answers to legitimate questions are dismissive, spun, or obfuscated, public trust further erodes.

How can the public trust the mayor to not be biased and preferential towards his donors and supporters? Or against those who refused to support or finance him? And since it is unlikely he will announce publicly who his donors or supporters are, the public has to conclude there is a potential conflict in every town business he participates in. Let me reiterate the main conclusions from the report (emphasis added):

  • Two forms of conflict of interest can emerge in the context of municipal governance: real conflicts of interest and apparent conflicts of interest. A real conflict of interest exists “when an individual’s independent judgment is swayed or might be swayed from making decisions in the organization’s best interests.” An apparent conflict of interest can arise when “an outside observer could reasonably conclude that an individual’s judgment is or might be swayed from making decisions in the organization’s best interests.
  • Councillors must take steps to avoid real and apparent conflicts of interest, although some real conflicts of interest will be unavoidable. When subject to a conflict of interest, the affected councillors must disclose their interest and abstain from voting or otherwise participating on matters related to the conflict.
  • Public perception that a councillor or a staff member is subject to an apparent conflict of interest can erode confidence in a municipal government. Accordingly, councillors subject to an apparent conflict of interest must fully disclose their circumstances to the public, along with an explanation of how proper ethical guidelines were followed.
  • Councillors and staff should avoid providing or appearing to provide preferential treatment to close friends and family. They should not conduct municipal business or encourage the municipality to contract with individuals with whom they have a close relationship.
  • Councillors should not divulge confidential information to those not entitled to it or use confidential information to benefit a third party. Leaks of confidential information erode public trust in municipal governance and dissuade private businesses from working with municipalities.

This also affects all other members of our council and will cloud their every decision. During every vote at the table the public will wonder if councillors are voting to support the mayor’s external ambitions and his campaign rather than for the good of the community. Our council will not be able to wipe away the stink of complicity if it comes to light that any of his donors were involved in a decision or contract.

Factors leading to this lack of transparency included a failure to appreciate the importance of avoiding conflicts of interest and of disclosing real and apparent conflicts of interest to maintain public confidence.

We have all seen what happens when personal ambition supersedes a politician’s concern for the greater good or for the electorate. South of us, we have witnessed four years of disastrous mismanagement and corruption in the recently-impeached president. We don’t want that sort of behaviour on any scale, here in Collingwood. The public elected a mayor and expects him to behave in an open, transparent, and accountable manner for the betterment of the community. Staying in that office while he runs for another does not fit those criteria. 

It was also apparent that it is far too easy to misconstrue the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act as addressing all the kinds of conflict of interest that Council members must confront. Despite its name, the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act does not provide a complete conflict of interest code for municipal actors. It addresses the pecuniary interests of a narrowly defined group of family members related to a Council member which are by virtue of the Act deemed to be pecuniary interests of the Council member. Council members are obligated to avoid all forms of conflicts of interest or, where that is not possible, to appropriately disclose and otherwise address those conflicts.

Council members are obligated to avoid all forms of conflicts of interest or, where that is not possible, to appropriately disclose and otherwise address those conflicts.

The final report contained several recommendations to tighten the conflicts of interest rules, both provincially and municipally, and to make councils more aware of both real and apparent conflicts:

12 The Province of Ontario should amend the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act to broaden its scope beyond deemed pecuniary interest to encompass any real, apparent, and potential conflict of interest.

27 The Code of Conduct should contain specific provisions addressed to apparent and potential conflicts of interest as well as real conflicts of interest.

28 The Code of Conduct should state that Council members must understand and adhere to their obligations concerning real, apparent, and potential conflicts of interest under the Municipal Act, the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, the Code of Conduct for Council members in Collingwood, and other relevant Town policies and legislation.

And not only could this put Saunderson into potential conflicts, it could put the suppliers in them, too. The inquiry recommended a Code of Conduct for suppliers, or an amended procurement bylaw that covered conflicts of interest even more stringently:

Suppliers who wish to do business with the municipality must act ethically. Council members, staff, and suppliers must be aware of any potential conflicts of interest posed by a procurement and, as they are obliged to do, they must avoid those conflicts where possible, and address them appropriately where avoidance is not a viable option. These obligations continue throughout the procurement process.

And (emphasis added):

94 “Suppliers must declare and fully disclose any” apparent, real, or potential conflicts of interest or unfair advantage concerning “the preparation of their bid” or “in the performance of” their contract. Examples of such conflicts include:
a engaging family members, friends, or “business associates of any public office holder” at the Town “which may have, or appear to have, any influence on the procurement process, or subsequent performance of the contract”;
b “communicating with any person” to obtain “preferred treatment in the procurement process”;
c engaging current staff or public office holders at the Town to take part “in the preparation of the bid or the performance of the contract, if awarded
d engaging former Town staff or former “public office holders to take any part in the” development “of the bid or the performance of the contract, if awarded, any time within” one year of such person “having left the employ or public office” at the Town;
e “prior involvement by the supplier or affiliated persons in developing the” “specifications or other evaluative criteria for the solicitation”;
f access to related confidential information “by the supplier, or affiliated persons” that is not readily available “to other prospective suppliers”;
gconduct that compromises, or could be seen to compromise, the integrity of the procurement process.”

I cannot help but see it as blatant hypocrisy for Saunderson to ignore the report. After all, why did we spend $9 million of our tax dollars when the man who demanded it won’t heed its recommendations? This simply tosses the report into the trash bin.

If the mayor is to be seen by the public as both honourable and ethical, he should immediately resign from his office and not participate in any town or county business. Otherwise, he could be seen as compromising the integrity and accountability of both levels of government.

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