What is Council Trying to Hide?


Conflicts of interest?
In an article in CollingwoodToday titled 18 simple rules? Council receives draft of new Code of Conduct, we learn that council is looking to update and revise its current Code of Conduct. Again. The article says,

A new set of 18 rules aims to help town councillors navigate the sometimes-complicated situations they may find themselves in through their public service roles.

You’d almost think it was a good thing when the article adds that the proposed code “seeks to incorporate recommendations to tighten up and clarify the rules for councillors, members of committees and local boards based on recommendations out of the Collingwood Judicial Inquiry (CJI).”

Except when you read that it doesn’t (emphasis added) quite do that:

Associate Chief Justice Frank Marrocco, commissioner for the Collingwood Judicial Inquiry, recommended in his final report that all elected municipal officials provide an annual financial disclosure of private interests. But this was not recommended for implementation by staff.

Do I understand that staff can now decide which recommendations to cherry-pick from the SVJI report? Do they have the same legal qualifications and experience as the judge who made these recommendations, or are they just trying to avoid those recommendations they know council cannot or will not bother with? Maybe they are aware of some closet skeletons they’re rather stayed hidden.

I ask myself why would anyone on council balk at revealing the same sort of financial information that other levels of government (including candidates) have to release? What have they got to hide? It’s almost like they wouldn’t want the public to know about former employers that they plan to give millions of our tax dollars to in an untendered contract. And do it more than once. Who would possibly be that underhanded?

What about being open and transparent? Oh, right: those are just campaign promises, not something they ever intended to provide.

Not that the public here gives a damn about the inquiry, its report or its recommendations, only about the waste of more than $10 million of our tax dollars on it. The sole public meeting to present the SVJI report met with an embarrassing lack of engagement on the public’s part. That, of course, has not dulled council’s rabid obsession with spending our money on it. And it’s not like they care about anything else in the community.

As for “18 simple rules,” the staff report on those “simple” runs to 51 rather dense, legal-sounding pages; a document I’d suggest is well beyond the reading capacity of the majority of council. Maybe staff should have provided pie charts to keep their interest. Or a colouring-book version. Simple in this reference doesn’t seem to mean what you thought it meant. I suspect it really means “easily ignored.”

We know that council (in particular Mayor Saunderson, Deputy Mayor Hull, and Councillor Hamlin) have already ignored several recommendations in the report of the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (the SVJI) about apparent conflicts of interest. Not in the least has been Saunderson’s and Hamlin voting to award sole-sourced contracts to their former employer. So the news that council could continue to ignore any of the SVJI’s recommendations in other areas comes as no surprise. We’ve grown to expect they will ignore what doesn’t suit them.

And, of course, local media are mute on these conflicts because they don’t want to embarrass their close, personal friends on council. But I digress.

If you look at the staff report, page 17, you’ll find more than three pages of commentary about councillors avoiding all sorts of conflicts of interest. Including this:

Members must remain at arm’s length when Town staff or Council is asked to consider a matter involving a Family Member or a person or organization with whom the Member has a real or apparent conflict of interest.

Which should make you laugh (and not just for the wonky, inappropriate capitalization or convoluted grammar), given the refusal of several members to do so until now, what with voting for former employers or on issues that directly affected their jobs and the incomes of their coworkers and friends in the real estate business. As if anyone expects that should council get a new code of conduct that they suddenly start to obey the rules and get all ethical and moral. Too late, methinks, for the corruption is already well-established. Three pages of wasted effort.

And this:

Members should be committed to performing their functions with integrity, objectivity, transparency, and accountability to promote public trust and confidence.

I don’t know how you read it, but to me, the verb “should” suggests that they have a lot of wiggle room about what they commit to. Like their oath of office, which our mayor abandoned in January, but still continues to draw his paycheque from town coffers.

And this one got dumped, too (emphasis added):

Marrocco’s recommendation that former council members should not accept employment for one year on specific matters on which they worked as an elected official at the Town of Collingwood is also not being supported by staff.
According to the staff report, the Integrity Commissioner confirmed it would be difficult to enforce, as the Code of Conduct has no jurisdiction over former members and could be considered “restraint of trade.”

Who gave staff the authority to cherry-pick recommendations? This time, however, I agree with them: it’s a bonehead recommendation. I recall making similarly negative comments on that particular recommendation two years ago. It’s unlikely it would withstand a legal challenge, and well outside the mandate of the inquiry to comment on. Just another irrelevant item in the SVJI report.

But council has continued to throw our tax dollars at lawyers (mostly at Saunderson’s and Hamlin’s former employers) and touting its obviously flawed report for two years after it was presented and the inquiry closed. Saunderson even flaunted the SVJI report to the County (albeit receiving a barely-lukewarm response there). Now they can reject parts that clash with their personal goals. Ain’t hypocrisy grand.

Councillor Mariane McLeod asked whether Rule 3 “would prevent her from acting in volunteer roles such as bartending at Collingwood Curling Club events.” The story continues:

The rule she referenced states money raised through fundraising efforts shall go directly to the groups or volunteers or chapters acting as local organizers of the group and members of council should not handle any funds or cash on behalf of such organizations. McLeod requested the reference to money/cash be removed.

I’m sure I’ll be accused of “besmirching” council’s already-stained reputation by asking this, but why would any councillor want a reference to handling money be removed from a document intended to show the public how honest and uncorrupt they are? Surely as a volunteer, there are other jobs available to do aside from handling cash?

The draft code itself says on page 14:

Members recognize that ethics and integrity are at the core of public confidence in government and in the political process; that Members are expected to perform their duties in office and arrange their private affairs in a manner that promotes public confidence, avoids the improper use of influence of their office and conflicts of interests, both apparent and real. They recognize the need to uphold both the letter and the spirit of the law including policies adopted by Council.
This Code of Conduct ensures that Members share a common basis and understanding for acceptable conduct of Members, in concert with and beyond the minimum standards of behaviour set out in the existing legislative framework.

Stop laughing. I know, I too guffawed at the thought of this lot recognizing anything that smacked of “ethics and integrity.” I’ll bet that Saunderson’s and Hamlin’s former employers guffawed at that thought too, every time they cashed the town’s cheques.

And as for arranging “their private affairs in a manner that promotes public confidence,” one only needs to recall how our mayor dishonorably abandoned his role and his oath of office when he announced he intended to run for the riding’s MPP (a position he didn’t even have to work for because the local riding association was shoved aside to appoint Saunderson instead of allowing the democratic process to happen). And don’t get me started on the arbitrary interim control bylaw (ICBL) that killed revenue, growth, jobs, and development without even the pretense of public consultation.

Ethics? Integrity? Public confidence? Give me a break.

You should read the staff report (if you can stay awake through it) to see just what recommendations from the SVJI are included (pages 4-11) and ignored. Some will make you shake your head. Like this:

#17 – The Code of Conduct should state that Council members must perform their duties with integrity, objectivity, transparency, and accountability to promote public trust and confidence. The public is entitled to expect the highest standards of conduct from the individuals they elect to local government. This provision
should be placed in the body of the Code of Conduct for Council members and not in the preamble to the Code.

We paid millions of tax dollars for a “recommendation” to write a sentence about values into a policy about values. Hmmm. Maybe I should admire the naive optimism in this recommendation, but I ask myself why someone thought a statement like this wouldn’t be included in anyone’s code of conduct. And do you think that simply writing it will make council members act with ethics and integrity? So far it hasn’t.

Or this one:

#18 – The Code of Conduct should state that Council members at the Town of Collingwood must comply with all applicable provincial and federal legislation, Town bylaws, and Town policies concerning “their position as an elected official.”

This makes me wonder if the author was unaware that ALL residents had to comply with “all applicable provincial and federal legislation” and town bylaws regardless of whether they were elected to council. Otherwise, why belabour the obvious? It’s like making a “recommendation” that all members must obey all applicable laws of physics and the law of gravity. And then there are those sneaky quotation marks at the end to suggest, nudge, nudge, wink, wink, that it’s not really about their position as an elected official, just pretending to be.*

The report has 52 of the SVJI’s 306 recommendations written out to be included in the town’s new code, several of which are similar to the above two in being either obvious or redundant.

Apparently, council isn’t paid enough to discuss issues and ask questions past a fixed time these days, even when they can’t reach a resolution. So instead of doing what they are paid to do, they just quit. Maybe they just wanted to avoid making a decision, as they often do, because we learn from the story that:

…as timing ran short and councillors still had questions and clarifications regarding the document, councillors did not vote to recommend adopting the draft code of conduct, instead opting to defer.
Instead, councillors were asked to email additional questions and comments to staff, who would prepare answers for a special meeting that would be scheduled for later in October.

Now they get to ask their questions in secret, away from the prying eyes of public scrutiny and transparency. Well, we all knew they are a secretive and deceptive lot. Who knows what will eventually be made public (and likely edited, redacted, and censored to avoid embarrassing those of our elected officials who are prone to making bonehead statements in public and besmirching their already-tarnished reputations). I can’t help but think that’s another slap in the face of democracy from this lot.

What are the penalties a councillor might face if he or she breaks these new rules? Pretty much none, it turns out. The whole issue of enforcement and penalties is generally ignored, much like the rules will be. The Integrity Commissioner can recommend a modest penalty for a small range of violations (but all of which must be approved by council, and you know they won’t punish their friends), but otherwise, councillors can do as they have done this term: blithely ignore the rules of conflict and conduct and do as they damned well please.

So this whole thing is an exercise in futility because nothing will change as a result. That sums up everything this council has done this term.

Collingwood deserves better.

Ethics test


*Another example of bad writing that only underscores the desperate need for a communications officer in town hall, one with experience in editing and English usage. The report itself is in dire need of an editor and should not have been made public in this state. But then, this comes from the town that spells our province’s name “ontatio” on signs, so I guess it should be expected.

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    • http://ianchadwick.com/blog/my-report-about-the-report-about-the-report/

      Lest we forget that the CAO previously reported on the same recommendations from the SVJI report, and this new report basically repeats all of that by reporting on the report again. So we keep paying for staff to review and report on the report, two years after the SVJI report was handed in.

      And we’re still paying for the legal firm BLG (Saunderson’s and Hamlin’s former employers) to read the documents… the same documents previously read by the OPP, then read by the inquiry lawyers, “experts,” and judge, and we assume are still being read by the CAO to find heffalumps in the paperwork. So taxpayers are STILL paying the costs for this vendetta.

      One day, we hope, sometime in the year left in their term, council might possibly turn their attention to something about the community.

      Or perhaps I’m fantasizing.

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