Fiddling While Rome Burns

Nero fiddlesYou know that legend about Nero fiddling while around him Rome was burning? It’s a popular metaphor for political cluelessness, for inaction, procrastination, for politicians oblivious to the important business of the city while they play games. For municipal leaders who focus on the petty, the trivial, the irrelevant and the self-serving, while major issues are ignored.

Pretty much sums up Collingwood Council’s record to date. Fiddling with irrelevancies.

To be fair, they’ve only been in office eight months and probably haven’t got around to focusing on important things.

Still, you have to scratch your head and wonder why council wastes its collective energy on ephemeral (and irrelevant) strategic plans (that will be dust-collectors within days of being released as have so many previous plans become) or unnecessarily revising a generally unread code of conduct when residents really care about sidewalks, potholes, taxes, trails, parking and other more pragmatic issues.

One cannot but suspect this is the pursuit some hidden ideological plan, some secret, personal agenda being played out upon the citizens like an amateur theatrical production, instead of acting in good faith for the community’s best interests.

Last week, in its theatrical fervour, council unveiled what will likely be the highlight of its term: a revised code of conduct. And the populace responded with… a yawn. That was from those few who even paid attention to such minor issues. Procedural matters are to the public interest what a bicycle is to a fish.

Well, the council sycophants were, of course, delighted: those NINJA* remora think this is just the jim-dandiest thing a council could do and handed out back-slaps and congratulations like candy treats at Hallowe’en. And in crowing over it (clearly without actually reading it…), they ignored its glaring, egregious flaws. As we expected them to do. Cheerleaders on the Titanic to the bitter, icy end.

Face it: only the handful of local ideologues and their minions give a damn about the code of conduct. If you behave in office ethically and morally, as people expect you to, then the code and all of its clauses are merely fluff in the wind. Window dressing.

People wonder when a council feels the need to present such a broadly restrictive code of conduct: clearly council is telling us it needs the rules in place because they themselves are likely to break them. Or their colleagues will, and they need to be stopped before they lead themselves into temptation.

How can the public respect people in an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion like this? How can our politicians work together when they clearly don’t trust one another to be honest?

If governments lead by example, what example is council setting by this overt paranoia? Without these new restrictions in place, it seems town hall must be a riot of corruption, conflict and dishonesty. But suddenly with the introduction of a piece of paper, it will all revert to godliness and saintliness. Or so the theory goes…

Suspicions are easily raised. After all, this document indicates a massive level of distrust between politicians. They have to spell out how each is expected to behave in excruciating detail, as if council was filled with errant schoolchildren who will be brats unless all the rules are carefully posted. Don’t hit. Don’t spit. Don’t break wind. Don’t eat with your fingers…

That’s what it appears they think of themselves. If you need to be told to be honest – as it says in the code’s preamble – then you probably weren’t honest to begin with.

A  code of conduct is an option, not a requirement, under the Municipal Act (section 223). Even then, what it can do is limited. Under that Act,

A by-law cannot provide that a member who contravenes a code of conduct is guilty of an offence.

An Integrity Commissioner, also an option rather than a requirement, after determining wrongdoing (only on the basis of a complaint), may impose one of two penalties, neither of which involves removing the member from the table or his/her right to participate in future discussions or votes:

1. A reprimand.
2. Suspension of the remuneration paid to the member in respect of his or her services as a member of council or of the local board, as the case may be, for a period of up to 90 days.

However, as you will see a bit further, in section 18.3, the new code effectively blocks the IC from investigating any significant complaint against this council, so it’s just a feel-good sham.

The revised code is the “brainchild” of Deputy Mayor Brian Saunderson who, as a lawyer, one might expect would know better than to write a code that tries to one-up existing provincial laws about behaviour and conflict. He should also know that you cannot legislate people into being honest.

This document proposes a dour bureaucracy masquerading as the municipal moral authority, when it is merely its McCarthy-esque implementation. It attempts to cover all possible eventualities of ethical behaviour that politicians themselves are likely to breach. I’s a pre-assumption of guilt, an assumption that councillors will break the law, that corruption is just waiting to happen.

Signing it is an acceptance that your word isn’t good enough, that you aren’t ethical or honest enough to be trusted to govern without these rules: guilty without being charged. Not signing it makes you look just as guilty because it looks like you refuse to obey these draconian rules. It’s a Catch-22, a…

…paradoxical situation from which an individual cannot escape because of contradictory rules.

But do you really have to sign? No… Section 17 says council members “will be expected” to sign it only “at the beginning of each term.” Nothing in the Municipal Act requires signing it: nothing can force anyone who has been lawfully elected to sign it, either. Since it doesn’t even have to be signed after the term has begun, why bother raising it now? Except for the showmanship, that is… fiddle, fiddle, fiddle.

This isn’t an exercise in openness as it is being touted: it’s an exercise in self-aggrandizing and chest-beating. The emperor parading bravely naked down the avenue to a tune in his head only he hears. The rest of us watch in amusement.

Does this group think people will respond so positively to the presentation of this repressive code that we will forget that this council in its very first budget raised our taxes unnecessarily, raised our water rates for no reason, avariciously gave themselves a pay raise, and threw $40,000 at councillor Kathy “Senator” Jeffrey so she could party in style all around the country at your expense, but certainly not to your benefit?

I don’t think so: for most residents, taxes and utility bills are far more important. We’re not fooled by some gimcrack puffery like this. We won’t forget the election promises broken so soon.

What’s most disturbing in this code are two provisions: first to include under conflict of interest other family members and relatives like in-laws and siblings, step-relations and even people who are living in your home – relations who are deliberately left out of the provincial conflict of interest law.

Under the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act only spouses, parents, and children count for conflicts. So who knew a group of small-town, novice politicians were better informed about governance than the province and all its lawyers?

(Frankly, I don’t see how a municipal council can overrule provincial laws. I suspect such conditions would fail any court challenge – and thus cost the municipality thousands of wasted tax dollars defending the indefensible. I think it’s supreme arrogance to think a small municipal council of mostly inexperienced members can write a bylaw that supersedes provincial law.)

Who knows all the relationships and family ties of every person at the table? Who will keep track of all these relationships? Staff? Will they be posted publicly for all to see?

There is no mechanism for declaration of such relationships. Will each councillor be required to present a genealogy at the start of every meeting so the public will know each individual’s web of relations and step-relations? In a small town, those relationships are wide; some at the table currently are related to many hundreds of people in town. How will we be assured of total openness and transparency according to the new code, unless the full family list is disclosed?

Then, in Section 18.3 of the code of conduct, the IC is forbidden from investigating any complaints related to conflict of interest. So why list all of these relations and family as potential conflicts if council won’t allow the IC to investigate them?

Clearly this is merely a flimsy PR exercise in which council pretends to be open and transparent while removing any chance the public might have for challenging their actions.

The proposed code also warms members not to influence issues on behalf of  “friends.” Who are friends? It isn’t defined. It could be argued that our politicians have a plethora of people in town claiming to be their “friends,” so almost any action they take will violate the code.

Who determines friendship? Is there a set number of social events one has to attend in the company of another to be considered a “friend”? Is talking regularly with someone at the dog park, or in a grocery store an indication of “friendship”? Are Facebook “friends” counted? Are we friends with our barbers with whom we have discussions about politics with every hair cut? Friends with our chatty baristas or bar servers? Friends with people who put your election sign on their lawn or hosted a campaign meet-and-greet for you at their home?

(This council’s “friends” clearly benefitted through council’s appointments to boards and committees – which would violate the new code. Isn’t there some irony in closing the barn door long after council let these particular horses out?)

The other provision of concern, as mentioned above, is to prevent the integrity commissioner from investigating conflicts of interest. Clearly this is a protective measure to avoid further oversight on a council already under investigation for such breaches (rumour has it the legal costs have exceeded $60,000 already this year and the term isn’t a quarter done…). Council clearly expects more such ethical violations in future, so wants to avoid further investigation. And bills. Hence the self-protection.

In essence, the code offers up controls and restrictions with regard to potential conflict, but then kicks the legs out from under itself by preventing the IC from investigating those violations.

The code also suggests there might be “informal” resolution of complaints to the integrity commissioner, as if it was some sort of labour negotiation where both sides could sit down and talk about it. This way, a complaint can all be dealt with hush-hush, behind closed doors, no need to tell anyone else or make the embarrassment at being caught public. Who needs to be accountable when you have such provisions?

“Informal” is not defined, but one could suggest knee-capping a complainant into submission is an informal resolution. Is it “informal” to intimidate, threaten or bully a complainant to withdraw their complaint? And how is this process regulated and overseen? Are there records kept, staff present, or is it done outside the public eye, in secrecy?

As I read it, the code exempts council from much public oversight and scrutiny.

While the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act (MCIA) requires suspected pecuniary conflicts (the only sort of conflict recognized by the Act)  to be dealt with in the public realm through the court system, the integrity commissioner has provided a non-judicial arbiter who can examine the ethical and moral issues around non-legal, non-pecuniary conflicts.

Not now, however: in this new code Council wants to make sure its members are not subject to such scrutiny by the IC.

Which begs the question: who, then, investigates and enforces these new rules, if the IC is removed from that role? Staff have no authority to do so.

And what, if any, are the penalties for breaking these rules? Outside the minor wrist-slapping by the IC for those very few areas he can even investigate, there are no penalties.

Face it: the new code is a sham: it pretends to take a stern Puritanical moral stance, but sneakily takes away the public’s right to call most suspected violations into question. It has no mechanism for reporting relationships, no enforcement, no penalties and no legal credibility for restrictions well outside existing provincial law. It’s an exercise in disinformation.

This procedural codswallop replete with exhortations to behave honestly, paired with rules it expects its own members will violate, but which can’t be properly investigated in the public forum.

And they think we won’t recognize this? This is the real legacy** of this council.

Let me finish by saying that no municipality needs 16-pages of dense legalese like this for a code of conduct. That’s a bureaucratic quagmire. If a declaration that you will try your best to serve the needs of all the residents and obey the rules can’t fit into a single page, then you have to ask yourself what sort of people we elected who desperately need so many rules to be honest.


* NINJA: No Income, No Job or Assets.

** The really important things this term, such as keeping taxes low, reducing the debt, rebuilding Hume Street, renovating the Curling Club and the Eddie Bush arena, building much-needed new rec facilities, building a new fire station, repairing bridges, installing new docks and initiating an operational review and a financial master plan were actually accomplished or started by the previous council.

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