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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Conducting conduct

Yesterday I participated in a fun event, being a “celebrity conductor” for Fanshawe Chorus’s fundraiser at White Oaks mall. It’s a yearly event, and this is the third time I have been invited. The choir is very forgiving of my inexperience.

Last year, I brought my own baton, a pencil, in honour of the infamous pencil-throwing incident at a Board of Control meeting a few weeks earlier. This year I promised Marlene Fagan, who is often the pianist at this event and who issued the invitation, that I would do some preparation and I did.

I began by looking up choral conducting on the Internet. Wikipedia was very helpful, particularly by pointing out the very gestures that form the code for the conductor and choir. Hand gestures, facial expressions, eye contact, leaning back, the semi-audible sniff. All of this is very reminiscent of communications at council and our own code of conduct.

We discussed the issue of how council conducts itself, especially in the media, at our last council meeting on February 1st. The motion was brought forward by Councillors Susan Eagle and David Winninger but it was clear that many of the members are concerned about this especially after the events of the last few weeks.

A few members of council are frequent guests or callers on local newstalk radio stations. Their remarks are usually on the issues of the day but often involve commentary on the position of other members with whom they disagree. That in itself is not problematic; it only becomes so when the decisions of council or the contributions of councillors are misrepresented and respect for the decision-making process is jeopardized. Name-calling and marginalization of other members don’t enhance support for the democratic process.

Here are a few examples:

A member of council made gratuitous negative commentary about the mayor’s state of the city speech and also suggested that, in light of the charges against her husband, the mayor should not serve on the Police Services Board. The same councillor stated that the “Rock in the Park” concert was in jeopardy because some members of council didn’t want any concerts in the city.

Another member of council suggested (falsely) that a highly respected member of staff had gone behind council’s back and spent a quarter of a million dollars on equipment without council authorization.
At a recent standing committee meeting, a member of the committee berated the chair in front of a large number of citizens at a public participation meeting.

Even more serious are incidents of leaks of confidential information which could jeopardize the city’s ability to negotiate land transactions and conclude a fair tendering process.
All these are in addition to a litany of embarassing behaviours including name-calling, sexist remarks, shouting, slamming books and papers, and throwing pencils.

These behaviours reflect poorly on all members of council, reduce public respect for the democratic process and reduce public engagement in that very process. Name-calling and verbal and physical outbursts may make great headlines, but in doesn’t increase the citizen’s interest in voting or participating in the electoral process.

I, along with several colleagues, have been advocating retaining the services of an integrity commissioner who could assist us in improving our code of conduct, investigating violations, and recommending penalties for violations. At present, our code does not allow for either of these last two unless there are criminal violations or matters are so serious that a judicial investigation is required.

The public has a right to expect that council will take advantage of the options available to it to deal with inappropriate behaviours effectively and efficiently. An improved code of conduct with an independent integrity commissioner will help significantly in achieving that. That is what is happening in many other municipalities.

That was also what was recommended by the Accountability and Transparency Taskforce on which I, along with Councillors Baechler and Winninger and two members of the community, served . Fortunately, that is also the position that has been taken by council as a whole. Ultimately, only Controllers Polhill and Hume, along with Councillors VanMeerbergen, Caranci and Miller voted against the resolution. Deputy Mayor Gosnell also opposed the retaining of an Integrity Commissioner although he did support reviewing the code of conduct.

Whether an improved code of conduct and an integrity commissioner will make for greater harmony remains to be seen. Personally, I plan to attend Fanshawe Chorus's Grand Mass in C Minor by Mozart on Good Friday (April 2, 7 p.m.) at Centennial Hall where beautiful harmony is guaranteed. I hope to see you there.

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