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."

Friday, September 21, 2012

Who needs integrity?

In Unanimity rules I predicted that, despite the lack of opposition at Finance and Administration Committee to the motion requesting staff to bring back an implementation process to hire an integrity commissioner, the proposal would get a rough ride at council. Indeed it did.

It was clear to me that, not only did the mayor and Denise Brown lack enthusiasm for the idea, they had no intention of supporting it; once they could find support for voting against it, they would. The support was not difficult to find at council.

 Councillor Paul VanMeerbergen was the first to get up on his high horse. The appointment of an integrity commissioner would just afford disgruntled councillors a platform for political retribution, he asserted. It would be used to punish people on the wrong side of an issue, say “drive throughs”. Council had managed without an integrity commissioner for 157 years; it didn’t need one now. They should forget about this; there were serious issues to deal with. It was a waste of staff time.

The mayor initially took comfort in the fact that it was just a report coming back from staff, no decision would be made tonight, but Councillor Harold Usher disabused him of that. The recommendation said “proposed implementation plan”, not a referral and Council Paul Hubert who was presenting the committee report agreed; it was already a decided matter of the previous council and the $25,000 for implementation had been set aside in the 2010 budget. It just hadn’t been finished. That had been the advice from the deputy city clerk.

Apparently the city clerk, Cathy Saunders, did not agree. She pointed out that the implementation was “to be investigated.”

And so it went….nowhere.

Usher thought it might be fine in other jurisdictions, councillors “may be buddies there and respect each other”, but here in London, well… He was probably remembering some ridicule and accusations that he had experienced at the hands of some of his colleagues.

One of those colleagues, Councillor Stephen Orser, got up to speak. It was good to see that he had fully recovered from his shaving injury of the preceding day. It must have been a small but deep cut; a little plaster below his right ear was the only visible symbol. But in the public gallery someone had distributed band-aids that all might display sympathy and support for his ordeal.

Orser wanted permission to address journalist and my fellow blogger, Phil McLeod, about an article he had written. He didn’t get it, so McLeod, taking notes at the back of the room, was safe.

But Orser had a litany of complaints. While he was supportive of whistle-blower legislation for staff, he had no use for an integrity commissioner. This was just retaliatory. The commissioner would accept anonymous complaints. The cost would be horrendous; he had heard it could cost $700,000. He hadn’t confirmed this, but he had heard it. A friend had told him lawyers do this just to get their foot in the door. And then there was still no ability to enforce the conflict of interest legislation; they’d still have to go to court. A better idea would be to establish a citizen’s integrity committee; they could do it for free. But integrity commissioner? Absolutely no!

Saunders pointed out that only $25,000 had been set aside for a report back.

Fontana was relieved. That was what he had supported at committee, starting with a code of conduct.
“Everyone has integrity around this table,” he pronounced. He would never question anyone’s integrity. But the code of conduct, which hadn’t been reviewed for 10 years, staff should deal with that, bring a report back.

“A lot has changed since then,” he suggested. He liked Orser’s suggestion that some volunteers take it on as a public service. And he had heard at AMO (Association of Municipalities of Ontario) that the province was considering appointing integrity commissioner for municipalities, paid for by the province. Just like the ombudsman. They should wait to see what came out of that.

And why they should need an integrity commissioner at any price, wondered Councillor Dale Henderson. Council had a different vision now. They wanted to keep tax increases at zero. And they had a lot of 8-7 votes to prove it. They had spent tens of thousands of dollars on the ombudsman; they didn’t need to hand a blank cheque to an integrity commissioner. Henderson has been told time and again that the ombudsman does not bill the municipality and, in fact, has not increased his office budget with the addition of the role of private meeting investigator. The information clearly has not sunk in. He cannot be accused of being a quick study.

Councillor Joni Baechler who had initiated the request was left to try to combat this level of misinformation and disinformation.

The changes to the Municipal Act in 2007 gave the municipalities broad sweeping powers, she pointed out. To balance those powers, the provincial government allowed for the creation of checks and balances in the form of the private meeting investigator, the integrity commissioner, an ombudsman, and a lobbyist registry. Only the first was mandatory for cities other than Toronto, which was required to have them all. But most comparably sized cities in Ontario were engaging an integrity commissioner and some setting up a lobbyist registry as well. The integrity commissioner wouldn’t be full-time, just someone who would be on call if needed. If there were no complaints, there would be no need to investigate. Complaints are not anonymous; they have to be signed by the complainant. The $25,000 was set aside to recruit the integrity commissioner and get a clean-up of the code of conduct. Thereafter it was up to council. If they followed the code of conduct, it would cost very little to keep someone on stand-by. But if it was going to be another four years of doing whatever the h*** you want….

She wasn’t interested in simply getting another report back. There was no point in wasting staff’s time. As for her, she wanted to stand by an open and transparent government.

The debate was interrupted by the orders of the day, handing out 25 year service pins to employees, and dinner to follow.

After dinner the debate was brief. Councillor Joe Swan saw no need for someone to enforce the code of conduct. He had seen terrible behaviour at council resulting in threats, assaults, and property damage, but they had dealt with it. 

Councillor Nancy Branscombe disagreed. The there were a lot of personal attacks and disrespect at council and she didn’t see things getting any better. “I don’t think we can manage on our own,” she concluded.

However, they will have to for the next year or two at least. They voted down the integrity commissioner, the voluntary interest disclosure and the lobbyist registry. Usher joined the gang of eight for these votes. All agreed to have the code of conduct reviewed.

Hubert was chagrined. They had been unanimous at committee; the least that the two turncoats (my words, not his) could have done was to let him know they were switching their votes, an observation that offended Denise Brown and angered the mayor. There was no call to point out his flip-flop.

For me, the most discouraging part of all of this was the failure of so many of the members of council to have any comprehension about the nature of the role and powers of the integrity commissioner which again meant that they had not done their homework. They just didn’t know what they were talking about.

But even more worrisome is their failure to understand the meaning of integrity. Integrity is not just showing courtesy and respect to other members of council by addressing them properly, listening to them and not interrupting. It is not even to avoid threatening, or insulting or assaulting others. Those things can be dealt with by competent chairing.

Integrity is what is needed to ensure public trust, that elected officials are acting in the best interests of their constituents in their ward and in the city as a whole, that their decisions reflect due diligence in learning about the issues in their city, investigating the possible solutions, consulting the best advisors they can find. It means understanding the vested interests that may lobby you, and not accepting gifts from those who would seek to sway you. It means making every effort to understand, evaluate and debate and to encourage others to do likewise. And it means honesty.

Recently there have been allegations of corruption in the awarding of government contracts in Quebec, but an RCMP spokesperson pointed out that Ontario is not immune. London isn’t immune either.

An integrity commissioner won’t guarantee immunity, but it will signal to council and to the citizens of London that we expect integrity. And where we believe integrity has been violated, we can voice our concerns and have them investigated. Not to punish, because the integrity commissioner can only recommend, but to allow the results of the investigation to be made public.

Open and transparent.

Note: A few months ago, I wrote about the threat to wildlife, beaver in particular, from development in west London in an area known as the Stanton Drain. It seems that the destruction of the beaver habitat and the beaver is almost inevitable. However, a group of area residents hopes to educate the public about this by taking a tour of the Stanton Drain on Saturday, September 22 at 11 a.m. Meet at Stanton Drain Gate on the north side of Gainsborough Rd. west of Ledgley Pianos on Hyde Park Rd. I hope to see you there. Bring your binoculars!


Anonymous said...

I'm just wondering, does city council actually do anything productive or are they just debaters?

Mother Goose said...

One of the biggest disappointments during this council term has been Ward 3 Coun. Joe Swantana.

Slly Field said...

I was deeply touched by the display of support by the band-aid brigade in the gallery.

See, Steve, they love you! They really love you!

Vicki Van Linden said...

Thanks for mentioning the guided tour of the Heritage Wetland in the area known as the Stanton Drain, this Sat. at 11:00 AM.

If we all stick together maybe we can save it yet. Just because it is an uphill and urgent battle might not mean that it cannot be won.

This is a tough and urgent fight but we must stand up for this wetland or more and more Environmentally Significant Areas will disappear to the whims of urban sprawl.

Let's convince council to direct staff to stop the bull-dozers going in so that more environmentally friendly solutions can be found. And, no animals should be moved, trapped, or killed until further consultation with the public.

Why is it that ugly, cement parking lots are not seen as the things to be torn up for Storm Water Management instead of stealing from nature and destroying Wetland?

Call your councillor today and tell them that there must be an open public consultation before any further action is taken. There has been no public review in recent years.

And, do come out on Sat. and show that ordinary Londoners have a say in how our city treats the natural world.

Ellen H. said...

I'm always amazed by people who claim to have integrity and are honest and forthright being unwilling to be investigated, audited or even questioned. If you really have nothing to hide or be embarrassed by then you should be open to scrutiny.

Anonymous said...

In a democracy you vote in those who believe are honest and vote out those who prove otherwise
You can not legislate morality

Anonymous said...

are you surprised that the majority on council don't want to be investigated? The mayor wouldn't want to be given he is running a tax sham charity.

Barry Wells said...

In Canada and the Province of Ontario there currently exists the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner of Canada, the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner of Canada (for federal public servants) and the Office of the Integrity Commissioner for the Province of Ontario.

At the municipal level, several Ontario municipalities now have Integrity Commissioners.

Open, transparent and accountable government at all levels is a desirable, healthy thing and clearly extends beyond the scrutiny of democratic elections every four years or so. To suggest otherwise is both foolish and Ostrich-like.