Not Getting It

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ConfusedIn a recent opinion piece in the Enterprise Bulletin titled “Swayze overused by council?” EB reporter/editor Paul Brian comments,

I think the overuse of Swayze is outlandish and it is not congruent with the tough financial situation of the town.*

Like much of the EB’s increasingly vague reporting since former editor Ian Adams left, the paper’s current editorial staff doesn’t seem to understand municipal politics. The reporting on many local matters raised at the council table show a naïve ignorance of both the issues and the processes at stake. The EB’s budget reporting this year was so flawed it should have been posted as satire, not news.

The EB just doesn’t get it.

That “tough financial situation” Brian mentions allowed council to approve a $40,000 increase in Councillor Jeffrey’s expenses so she could pursue personal political goals outside of town. The EB was ominously silent on such abuses of power, and has been equally silent about council’s apparent failure to actually read the budget documents they were voting on.

And now this… the EB continues to dazedly tread deep water. Its writers struggle vainly to regain what little relevance the paper once had to the community, by pretending to know what’s going on. Well, they don’t.

One suspects this myopic editorial approach is bolstered by the ideological need to support the few council ‘friends’ of some of its writers.

Brian apparently doesn’t understand why an Integrity Commissioner was hired. It’s not for council’s use – although councillors can file complaints like anyone else – it is for the public. It is to provide a mechanism for any member of the public to question or challenge the behaviour of their elected representatives.

Is Brian suggesting the public is ‘overusing’ the IC by filing legitimate complaints? That would smack of arrogance and autocracy. The public has every right to file any number of complaints. The IC is there for them. The public perception of council is at stake.

And what price do you pay for accountability? Brian suggests there should be some sort of cap on it. What, stop investigating public complaints once the budget is used up? That’s hardly accountability. But perhaps Brian thinks that’s what council wants, since the results are embarrassing to them.

Consider that most people, even avid council watchers (and especially some local bloggers) don’t understand the processes, laws, codes and procedures that bind and oversee council’s behaviour. The complexities, and indeed subtleties, are not always part of the public dialogue. The media themselves are often ignorant of them, as we see in this column.

I would argue, too, that, based on my observation of this council in action, several at the table are still confounded by the very rules they have to follow (I’d prefer to think they were bemused rather than that they were deliberately ignoring them).

Councillor Doherty is reported to having said:

“It was disturbing and confusing that on the one hand I was told I was not in conflict with the code and on the other hand he’s (Swayze) saying I should have declared a conflict, so which one is it? I think it speaks to weaknesses in our Code of Conduct and maybe even our Municipal Conflict of Interest Act,” Doherty said in an interview with the E-B following council.

No, Councillor, it does not speak to any weakness in the laws or the code. It speaks to a weakness in how the IC chooses to recommend his own opinion as to what action you should have taken, rather than adhering strictly to the written law. It speaks to a weakness in council’s collective wisdom in accepting a flawed report (did the majority of council even read it?).

It also speaks to a weakness in your own behaviour for not even considering that there may be the perception of conflict.

Brian almost gets it right when he comments:

The Integrity Commissioner is not the conscience of council nor its moral arbiter, he’s a professional paid to do a specific job.

What Brian missed was that by accepting the IC’s report, council accepted his role as both conscience and moral arbiter, giving it credibility. Council has made it clear by its vote that the majority of its members are comfortable with that, as they are with receiving his mixed messages (as well as his not following the rules set out in the bylaw – see my earlier post). Council only has itself to blame for any confusion over roles and responsibilities.

Municipal politics and politicians are far more regulated than either their provincial or federal counterparts in many areas. Every election campaign arise those candidates who bluster about more “openness, accountability and transparency” without actually having read any of the rules and laws that are already in place. That goes for several who won their seats this term. Although they rise up on their high horses and tilt at the windmills of transparency, they would have better served the community by paying attention to the budget, and not raising our taxes or our water rates.

Brian compounds his misunderstanding by adding:

It’s a mixed message that comes out of a town Code of Conduct (and provincially perhaps even a Municipal Conflict of Interest Act) that needs a closer look and some clearer definitions.

Yes, Swayze is sending a mixed message, one which I commented on a week ago. But the Code of Conduct and the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act are not. The latter is the law. If it needs to be clarified, it must be done at the provincial level, not the municipal. As best all council has the authority to do is encourage the province revise it. A wiser council would have rejected the report because of this mixed message (assuming they actually read it…).

The code, too is clear, because it repeats what the provincial requirements are. If it is anywhere vague, it is in its insistence that council,

Follow and respect both the letter and spirit of the provisions of the Municipal Act and the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, as amended from time to time.

There is no definition of ‘spirit” anywhere in law, hence the mixed messages from Swayze gets accepted by the majority. This phrase “the spirit of…” should be removed because it is nebulous and inexact – and leads to such a mess as the latest IC’s report. Council members should follow the law. Period. They don’t get to interpret or amend it.

Brian apparently shares the misconception of Deputy Mayor Saunderson that a municipality can write its own code or bylaw that supersedes provincial law. Sorry gentlemen, but you are wrong: municipal councils are children of the province and subject to provincial law. The province tells you how to behave, not the other way around.

Saunderson is noted in a news piece (front page on the current paper but now buried on the website) as saying (in his obtuse way):

“It’s certainly my hope and one of my motivations in bringing forward the motion to have our Code of Conduct reviewed and looked at to get some clarity on this so that we could have more certainty,” Saunderson said, referencing his January, 2015 motion that calls for a closer examination of the town’s Code of Conduct and the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act provisions it contains.

Saunderson’s loquacious cluelessness was made painfully evident in January in an article titled “Deputy Mayor pushes transparency.” At that time, Saunderson filed several motions – really just grandstanding stuff – that the paper reported on:

The motions, respectively, look at the town’s procurement policy especially with regard to sole sourcing and the use of a vendor record system, potential establishment of a lobbyist registry, examination of the town’s Code of Conduct and whether enhanced conflict of interest provisions to encompass a broader definition of family members is warranted; lastly a motion asks for any recommendation to council on other policies that could improve transparency and accountability.

But Saunderson looked baffled when he was told by Councillor Lloyd that the previous council had already asked for a staff report on some of the very things he brayed about, and had received that report back in 2013:

In remarks at council, Coun. Kevin Lloyd said that an April, 2013 report is already assessing some of the things Saunderson wants looked into on an ongoing basis.

Struggling painfully to save face over his ignorance of an important document that made his motion redundant, Saunderson commented to the paper:

“If it’s part of the discussion, fine. But the bottom line is when the boots hit the ground here, we as essentially the board of directors of the Town, have to make sure that on an ongoing basis we’re vetting these policies and making sure they’re best practices.”

His clichéd ‘boots hitting the ground’ stumbled into the mud when he and his cohorts voted to approve a sole-sourced taxi contract to the brother-in-law of Councillor Fryer a few weeks later. Then the boots tripped completely over Councillor’s Doherty’s alleged conflict.

So much for that vaunted, but evidently unattainable, accountability and transparency. Our do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do government want rules for others, just not themselves; and criticize others for allegedly doing what they actually do themselves (the former council being more sinned against than sinning, it now is evident). So, yes, we need an integrity commissioner and I suspect he will be kept much busier this term.

All this kerfuffle over the IC’s report, and over council’s self-aggrandizing attempts to puff up their own image by trumpeting transparency and accountability are, in Shakespeare’s immortal words, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” It’s ideological balderdash and the public isn’t fooled by the naked emperor parading around in front of us.

And as for the EB: well, it’s certainly come down a long way from the days when it was the respected voice of the community. But, I suspect, given its choice of writers, it will only continue to fumble its way along that ignoble descent.

~~~~~

* Not to put too fine a point on it, but I also suspect Brian does not fully understand what the term ‘outlandish’ means. It means bizarre, out of the ordinary and unusual, none of which suit the context of his column. I guess he probably meant inappropriate. And rather than congruent, I would suggest compatible is the better choice of words.

I won’t detail all of the other grammatical errors in his piece, but here are a few examples:

The man was only budgeted in December 2013 with funds to be allocated “in the Corporate Administration budget with an upset limit of $15,000,” according to the Dec. 2, 2013 council agenda.
That’s $15,000 a year folks.

It’s hard to ignore the passive voice, the convoluted, run-on sentence structure, and the missing punctuation (commas). So few words, so many mistakes.

That’s sort of a mixed message, especially coming from a lawyer such as Swayze, who has over 40 years experience in municipal law.

Sort-of-a? Why the vague, colloquial suggestion instead of a simple assertion? And it should be more than, not over (which refers to height, not quantity).

That’s what one of Deputy Mayor Brian Saunderson’s January transparency motions was all about with examining whether there is a need for enhanced conflict of interest provisions and definitions, with a staff report expected soon.

“…all about with examining whether…” The brain hurts trying to parse this contraption. And this, too:

The public needs to know the difference between a councillor voting on something that a member of the public feels they should not have versus a councillor voting on something that actually broke municipal laws.

Ah, for the want of colons, semicolons and commas the meaning is lost! I consider his writing pedestrian at best. Suffice to say I believe the editor himself could use the oversight of an actual editor.

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