By Trevor Busch
Town council has passed first reading of a code of conduct for elected officials that sets down stringent protocols that must be adhered to as part of a new provision of the recently-updated Municipal Government Act (MGA).
Council Code of Conduct Bylaw 1-2018 was developed with these provisions of the MGA in mind, which came into force on Oct. 26, 2017.
All municipal councils are required to establish a Code of Conduct to govern councillors by no later than July 23, 2018.
“As part of the Modernized Municipal Government Act, it requires all councils within the province of Alberta to adopt a code of conduct,” said CAO Cory Armfelt at town council’s March 12 regular meeting. “So administration has worked with Brownlee (LLP), your legal advisors, and developed a code of conduct that meets that mandate.”
Items under Sec. 10, Separation of Council and Administration, attempt to prohibit undue influence such as Sec. 10.1: Council shall at all times respect the separation of the duties of council and administration; 10.5: Councillors shall not act in a manner intended to undermine the reputation of any administrative staff member to another councillor, administrative staff, or members of the public; and 10.6: In accordance with Sec. 201(2) of the MGA, a councillor shall not involve themselves in matters of town administration which fall within the jurisdiction of the CAO, including providing direction on the conducting of town operations.
Sec. 10.8 appears to suggest administrative staff cannot speak with a councillor without the prior permission of the CAO, a regulation that could be interpreted as a restriction on a citizen’s right to address their elected officials regardless of their status as a town employee: “Should administrative staff attempt to speak to a councillor about issues regarding town operations in a manner that was not first authorized by the CAO, the councillor shall notify the CAO.”
Regarding an approach to dealing with the media — an area that saw significant deterioration under previous council, including acrimonious statements of public criticism by former mayor Henk DeVlieger and others on council — the regulations appear designed as an attempt to foster a more inclusive atmosphere of mutual respect.
Under Public Statements and Media Relations, some key inclusions were Sec. 15.2: When speaking to the public or the media, councillors shall represent the official policies and positions of council as a whole; Sec. 15.3: When making statements regarding their own personal opinions or positions, councillors shall explicitly state that they are not officially speaking on behalf of council as a whole, including anything communicated by electronic means, including through the use of social media; 15.5: Councillors shall conduct themselves respectfully and professionally in their interactions with representatives of the media; 15.6: Councillors shall acknowledge the media’s critical role in transparent government. To that end, councillors shall not make negative remarks regarding the media in council meetings or in public, and shall strive to foster an open and honest working relationship with the media.
Under General Conduct, some key inclusions were Sec. 5.3: Councillors shall carry out their duties with impartiality, putting the interests of the public above personal interests; Sec. 5.5: Councillors shall not make a statement when they know that statement to be false; Sec. 5.9: Councillors shall not abuse relationships or dealings with administrative staff by attempting to take advantage of their positions as councillors (and will) refrain from behaviour that may be perceived to be bullying of staff including behaviour exhibiting intimidation and coercion; and Sec. 5.14: Councillors shall not use their position to gain special privileges, honours, influence, freedoms or exemptions for themselves or any other person, including using their position to assist family members or friends seeking employment with the town.
Complaints under the bylaw would be diverted through an informal complaint procedure with various protocols and outcomes, or be handled through a formal complaint procedure with official documentation. The bylaw appears to be self-regulated internally, requiring councillors or the CAO to file requests for review if they believe another councillor or the mayor has acted in breach of any of the provisions, but Sec. 17.2 allows for “any individual” to file a formal complaint about the behaviour or activities of a councillor in contravention of the bylaw.
Potential disciplinary action for proven infractions or violations could include a public apology, a letter of reprimand recorded in the official minutes, mandatory training pertaining to the type of offence, return of an unreported gift or benefit, suspension or removal from council committees, reduction or suspension of remuneration, suspension or removal from the position of deputy mayor, suspension or removal of the mayor’s presiding duties, or suspension or removal of the mayor from their membership on council committees.
“I’ve read extensively through the code of conduct that’s suggested — or enacted — by the revised Municipal Government Act.It seems to me you have to be a saint in order to be a councillor,” said Coun. Garth Bekkering. “It’s pretty hard.”
Under Sec. 9, Expectations of Councillors During Council Meetings, Sec. 9.1 states, “the venue for discussions on town matters is council chambers. Councillors shall not carry on discussions, debates or plans on matters with each other outside of council chambers. This includes public mediums such as letters to the editor of any publication, blogs, or any form of social media.”
With regard to Discrimination and Harassment (Sec. 11.4), “councillors shall not discriminate against anyone on the basis of their race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, citizenship, creed, gender, sexual orientation, age, record of offenses, marital status, family status, disability, religious beliefs or source of income, as well as for any other reason outlined in the Alberta Human Rights Act.”
Under Sec. 13, Official Correspondence and Materials, Sec. 13.4 states, “a copy of any correspondence sent or received by a councillor shall be provided to administrative staff for record keeping purposes.”
Compulsory training for councillors is also a stipulation of the bylaw under Sec. 18.1, “In accordance with Sec. 201(1) of the MGA, all councillors must take part in orientation training as organized by administrative staff within 90 days after the councillor takes the oath of office.” This is to be followed up under Sec. 18.3 with each councillor participating in a minimum of two training opportunities per year.