Welcome to London Civic Watch

"Ever wonder if City Council is as contentious and chaotic as it is sometimes portrayed? Here you can get a progressive perspective on some of the issues from someone who spent four years in the trenches. Totally unbiased, though! Feel free to comment but keep it respectful, just like they do at council."

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Unanimity rules

It didn’t take long for the issue of the integrity commissioner to be raised at the Finance and Administration Services Committee (FASC) on Tuesday. The agenda was not onerous, and what was there to say about the consent items that wasn’t already in the reports? There were some questions about what the calendar would look like in the new year—it seems there will be some further “tweaking” of the committees, the third time in as many years—but no really big changes planned.

The second quarter financial reports were also out but everything seemed to be on track with an estimated $1.8 million surplus if all went well. In an $800M budget, that’s not much, but a small upset—early snow, labour negotiations—could change that picture quickly.

There were really only two items meriting discussion on the agenda, Councillor Joni Baechler’s proposal for increasing transparency and accountability and Councillor Stephen Orser’s request to refer some of his favourite issues to a plebiscite at the next municipal election. Orser is not on the FASC, but he didn’t want to take a chance on missing his item on the agenda so he was there at the start of the meeting along with committee members Joni Baechler, Nancy Branscombe, Paul Hubert, Denise Brown, and Mayor  Joe Fontana. Besides, he had some things we wanted to say about Baechler’s proposals as well.

Fontana invited Baechler to speak to her proposal, but first, he wanted some clarification. Wasn’t there a taskforce that had dealt with the integrity commissioner during the previous term of council, one that Mr. Winninger, Ms. Barber and Councillor Baechler and some others had worked on?

Baechler agreed. There had been a taskforce, council had adopted the position of an integrity commissioner and set aside money for a retainer for someone to be on standby. Anticipating anxiety about the potential cost of such a move, she pointed out that while Toronto has a full-time integrity commissioner, she saw no need for that in London; like many other communities we could put someone on retainer, update Council’s Code of Conduct using best practices, then just follow the rules. As long as councillors do that, there shouldn’t be any need to engage the integrity commissioner and incur additional costs.

As well, she proposed that council also put in place a system in the city clerk’s office to register those who seek to lobby councillors with respect to their proposed ventures. That would shine the light on who’s lobbying whom.

Finally, she reintroduced an earlier suggestion that councillors voluntarily disclose their interests (e.g. employment, business, real estate) upon taking office. It would not be a substitute for declaring conflict on specific issues, but would indicate areas where conflict could potentially occur.

As the first speaker, Paul Hubert took pains to point out that there was some confusion in the mind of the public; it seemed to think that the Ontario ombudsman was there to deal with these matters, but not so. His sphere of municipal involvement is limited to dealing with closed meetings. It’s his job to make sure that, with a few, specific exceptions, council matters are dealt with at meetings to which the public is invited and welcomed. No huddles behind closed doors. Personally, he supported retaining an integrity commissioner. He stood for integrity; he even had included it on his election signs. He didn’t see a problem. Vaughan had retained an integrity commissioner, and while there were a lot of complaints the first year, it died down pretty quickly thereafter. And who could object to declaring interests up front and updating the Code of Conduct?

Councillor Denise Brown agreed that she had no problem with upfront disclosure, but really “We don’t need someone to babysit us!” she huffed. It would cost lots of money dealing with a lot of frivolous complaints. And why hadn’t they received information from the previous council about this?

It’s a fair question. I have wondered myself where the reports have gone and why they weren’t acted upon. At the same time, Ms Brown likes to do her own research; why hadn’t she asked a few questions, checked into it?

When he was a cabinet minister, Mayor Fontana acknowledged, he had been required to go even further; he had had to divest himself of certain holdings and assets, put them into a blind trust. But change was in the air. Why, in Kitchener-Waterloo they were asking for changes because over half the council had had to declare a conflict over the light rail issue since they lived so close to the proposed tracks. And there was talk about getting a provincial integrity commissioner, one paid for by the province. That might be worth looking into.

But when all was said and done, “Denise is right,” he pronounced. “We can be looking at half a million dollars.”  They needed to look at it in a budgetary context. “We don’t need a full-time one,” he concluded, complaining that the previous report had never been given to this council.

Deputy city clerk Linda Rowe had the information at hand. On March 10, 2010 the previous council had requested that administration bring back an implementation plan for an integrity commissioner and $25,000 had been set aside for that in the budget. But nothing had come back to council. City manager Art Zuidema had checked the status of that report and confirmed that there was nothing in progress.

While I was on council I had asked about that report on a number of occasions and it was always coming soon. Not soon enough, however.

And just tonight, I tried to find that report on the city’s website, using the search engine for archived reports. But all I could find was a note in the 2011 proposed budget that the money set aside in 2010 had not been spent and would not be included in 2011 so that targets could be achieved.

So an integrity commissioner had already been approved, Nancy Branscombe pointed out in her no nonsense way. “Let’s get the implementation plan.” Then she turned to Brown. This wasn’t about babysitting, she pointed out scornfully, this was about transparency and accountability. “It’s not what we declare that is the problem, it’s what we don’t declare.” She wanted to reaffirm the appointment of an integrity commissioner, but Rowe assured her that was unnecessary; it was a decided matter of council.

Orser sounded upset about the prospects. What if council got an integrity commissioner and someone made a complaint. Would the integrity commissioner be able to take him to court? What about anonymous complaints? Would charities create a conflict of interest?

He was there when we made this decision in 2010. I don’t recall how he voted on the issue and I haven’t managed to track down the minutes for that decision. But for or against, he had received the reports from the taskforce and the day’s agenda reports. However, it all seemed new to him.

Baechler pointed out that the integrity commissioner does not deal with conflict of interest, that is dealt with under the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act. And at present, if someone has a complaint about the behaviour of a councillor, the complainant has to take the issue to court. The integrity commissioner, on the other hand, conducts an investigation, writes a report and makes a recommendation with respect to a reprimand or a limited suspension without pay, up to three months. Nobody goes to jail. The final decision is up to the council.

City solicitor Jim Barber added that what will be investigated depends on the code of conduct. That is the jurisdiction of the integrity commissioner, to aid council in enforcing its code of conduct.

Orser took no solace in what he heard. There would be frivolous complaints, he have to get legal council, he would be nickled and dimed to death.

Fontana wondered when council had last revised its code of conduct. About a decade ago, Barber suggested.

Hubert wondered how the mayor of Toronto’s case related to this. Barber didn’t want to offer an opinion, but it was a relevant point. Rob Ford is currently before the courts for failing to declare a conflict of interest on a matter in which he had a pecuniary interest. But it isn’t the integrity commissioner who took him to court, that was a private citizen. However, the issue that he was voting on was the report of the integrity commissioner who had recommended that he repay donations that he had raised for his private foundation from developers using his mayor’s business card. He is in danger of losing his position under the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act for that failure to declare his conflict and voting on his own punishment.

But Hubert had done a bit of research of his own. He had looked at the Kitchener-Waterloo website with its code of conduct and he had been impressed. It shouldn’t be that hard to do something like that in London. And after what he had witnessed at the last council meeting, they could certainly use it. He wanted to get on with it.

Baechler agreed. They could get the implementation in place by November and hire someone who could bring forward a revised code of conduct using best practices for council’s approval.

Brown balked. She couldn’t support that. “The bill just went up,” she announced.

Fontana agreed. Staff could create a new code of conduct. He didn’t want any integrity commissioner messing in that.

The integrity commissioner would already have experience with best practices, Baechler pointed out. But Fontana just wanted to vote on getting the implementation report back; he called the vote.

From where I was sitting, it was hard to tell who voted in support. Baechler, Branscombe and Hubert raised their hands. Brown and Fontana seemed to sit on theirs.

“Is the vote unanimous?” Baechler wanted to know. “Did anyone vote against it?”

“It passed,” Fontana replied curtly. “Why do you want to know?”

“Accountability and transparency,” Baechler replied.

Fontana asked for those opposed. No one raised their hands. It was declared unanimous, but not happily.

There followed a discussion of the lobbyist registry. A motion to have staff prepare a protocol and a process also passed without overt resistance from the committee although Fontana pointed out that “the devil is in the details”.

Finally, the issue of voluntary disclosure of interests by elected officials to be filed with the clerk’s office came forward. Baechler and Branscombe had brought this issue forward the previous year but it had been put on hold. Fontana denied ever seeing the report and wondered why he hadn’t received it. It had been on the agenda in January 2011, he was advised. Right at the start of the new term of council. It had also contained a background report.

In any case, Fontana didn’t see a problem with up front disclosure. Not for himself. But it could be contentious; it might discourage other people from running for office if they had to declare their interests up front. That would be too bad.

Baechler pointed out that it would be voluntary, but Fontana wondered how it would be perceived if someone didn’t want to declare; wouldn’t that make them look bad?

They have to do it provincially and federally, Baechler reminded him. That’s part of being in public life. But Orser believed that it would be open season on someone like him who has nothing to declare.

Still, he didn’t have a vote. Those who did carried the day and the recommendation passed.

Well done, Councillor Baechler.

Orser didn’t have as much luck with his proposal to place on the ballot in the next municipal election three questions: whether or not end the fluoridation of city water; whether to make councillors full-time; whether to hold tax increases to zero for another four years.

Discussion was brief. Even Fontana was not convinced he would want to run on zero for another term. There was a process in place for addressing the question of fluoride, and everyone knew that full-time simply meant a big wage increase for councillors.

All agreed to take no action on the proposal. This time, it really was unanimous.

That unanimity is likely to be reflected in the council vote in a week and a half. But only with respect to Orser’s scheme. And only because, having failed to get support from the committee, it will be buried in the reports and I doubt there will be any enthusiasm for bringing it to light.

Baechler’s proposals are likely to be in for a rough ride.


Kathy Clee said...

I don't understand how voluntary disclosure is useful. Miscreants won't disclose, and if caught, can just point out that they weren't required to disclose.

Anonymous said...

What is Brown's problem? She ran for office a few times before winning. If she can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. This is because of the nasty people on Council being unwilling or unable to abide by a Code of Conduct. What are you afraid of if you are going to follow the rules? Or doesn't that matter if it costs money?

Veteran Observer said...

Dear Anon.,

It might help to realize that Ms. Brown works for Mr. Donnelly (no relation to the Lucan D's) and Mr. Donnelly is a long time Liberal. Therefore, Ms. Brown takes her queues from the Arva drummer in all matters, large and small.

Yer welcome.

ChrisD said...

I am not opposed to an integrity commissioner, however, there are rules in place that handle conflict. The only proviso should be that councillors are not permitted to lodge a complaint. There are far too many insider agendas at play. The general public are the only ones that should be listened to.