True to her word at council a month ago, Councillor Joni Baechler is requesting her colleagues on the Finance and Administration Services Committee (FASC) to recommend to council the hiring of an Integrity Commissioner to help council improve its code of conduct and its adherence to it.
And that’s not all. She also wants to see the implementation of a lobbyist registry for city hall. And, she is again requesting that members of council voluntarily file their various and sundry interests with the city clerk’s office to increase transparency and accountability of councillors.
Little of this is new. On January 1, 2007 municipalities in Ontario were offered the opportunity to appoint a municipal ombudsman, an integrity commissioner, an auditor-general and to set up a lobbyist registrry. All of these were optional; the only new position that was mandated was the closed meeting investigator. The city could either hire its own or use the provincial ombudsman. Over the objections of the mayor and controllers, other than me, the council of the day chose the provincial ombudsman who would undertake the work without any additional payment.
Fortunately, we had no need to use the services of the ombudsman; that was left to the new council. Its behaviour resulted in complaints regarding three separate events. Two of these, the Occupy London removal from Victoria Park and the Harmony Grand Buffet Lunch, were considered worthy of investigation and although neither resulted in a finding of an illegal meeting, the ombudsman provided some words of advice to avoid citizens’ concerns in the future. The third complaint was deemed not to warrant an investigation. So far, so good.
In the meantime some other questions were raised with respect to other matters of integrity. There was the issue of how councillors spent the taxpayers’ largesse when it came to their expense accounts. And how many miles do councillors actually drive in responding to constituents’ concerns? Should there be some kind of accounting for these? And what about how members treated each other, their constituents, and those who sought to do business with the city?
There were also questions about relationships and interests that members of council might have that could affect how they perceived and dealt with an issue. The Municipal Conflict of Interest legislation is a fairly narrow document dealing only with pecuniary interests for councillors and their immediate families. But what about other relationships—organizational, political or religious—that might influence decision-making? After all, councillors are to work on behalf of their constituents and the municipality in general, not personal relationships within it.
During my time on council, I had pushed hard for an integrity commissioner, someone who could be called upon to assist council with developing an updated code of conduct, to deal with questions of ethics, to handle complaints from the public. Despite opposition from some, eventually we agreed to approve a policy on retaining an integrity commissioner and advertising for the same via a request for proposals. We even set aside money in the budget, money which, to the best of my knowledge, is still there, unspent. The request for proposals never made it to the newspapers or the city website.
We had also discussed from time to time the implementation of a lobbyist registry but since we had our hands full with the integrity commissioner, that possibility did not receive a lot of consideration. Besides, there was concern that by asking lobbyists to register, you might just drive them underground. Better leave well enough alone so that everyone could see the obvious lobbying going on.
And going on it was. Calls from developers and their agents were routine for those of us on the planning committee, especially if the application was contentious. So were visits from organized community groups. And there was a steady stream of visitors to councillors’ offices in the days and weeks leading up to budget deliberations.
If anything, that has gotten worse with the current council. It’s pretty commonplace to see developers and councillors huddled together before planning and council meetings, in councillors’ offices or in the hall outside chambers. Some councillors go as far as to hobnob with the developers on the council floor shortly before and even during the actual meeting. It’s hard to believe that under those circumstances councillors are working in the best interests of their constituents.
A lobbyist registry would regulate those consultations. It would require lobbyists, paid or not, to register with the city, indicate who they wish to see and why. It wouldn’t actually stop the lobbying, but it would make the process more transparent. It might be interesting, for example, to learn which councillors were contacted by the developer’s agent about the site plan for the condo development on Reservoir Hill.
But will it make a difference as long as our election financing rules are unchanged? As long as we have councillors who are able, courtesy of the development industry, to run campaigns at the spending limit with little or no fundraising effort? When the money just pours in? And you don’t have to fund all the councillors; you need only eight votes.
It’s not hard to see the effect of differential funding on councillors’ voting patterns, especially if they have served more than one term. There are those who receive virtually no donations from those who do business with the city. They are not part of Fontana’s eight.
Public declaration of interests, hiring an integrity commissioner and implementing a lobbyist registry won’t guarantee that our councillors are ethical, but it may just give the public some tools to demand accountability. It’s a start.
Public estimation of politicians would seem to be at an all time low. Too many of us regard all politicians as crooks. And yet there is no denying that there are hard-working elected officials who consistently place their communities ahead of their personal comfort and aggrandizement. If an integrity commissioner and a lobbyist registry can help to flush those individuals out, let’s have it. We need more of them.
Councillor Baechler's blog on her motion to the committee can be found here.