Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Integrity Commissioner is an Important Tool For Both Ratepayers and Members of Council

The report presented to council on Monday by Principles Integrity, which provides this municipality with Integrity Commissioner services, was a reminder it is an important tool not only for residents who might have a concern about the conduct of a member of council, or council as a whole, but also for members of council themselves who can seek advice about ethical concerns like conflicts of interest.

During the more than two-year period covered by the report and presentation to council, just seven complaints had been filed with the Integrity Commissioner, and none of those complaints met the threshold to launch an investigation. Of equal importance, members of Meaford’s council sought advice from the Integrity Commissioner 17 times over that same period of time.

While it is somewhat rare, members of municipal councils do from time to time stray from established procedure and ethical policies, or they over-step their role. We have all seen news reports over the years about a corrupt member, or members, of a municipal council, and when such stories are reported, the general public understandably can lose trust in elected representatives, making the role of an integrity commissioner all the more important, as it gives the public someone to turn to if they feel that their council, or members of their council, have broken that trust.

You can’t blame folks for being leery of politicians at any level, as history has taught us that while most might have the right intentions, there are always some who don’t, and the same can be said for any profession, from policing to the clergy. There are always a few rotten apples to spoil the bunch, but again, though it creates major headlines when it happens, it is in reality pretty rare.

An Integrity Commissioner can help to maintain trust in a local government, and they can also ensure transparency and accountability when warranted.

The perception that a community’s elected representatives are operating with integrity is the glue which sustains local democracy. We live in a time when citizens are skeptical of their elected representatives at all levels. The overarching objective in appointing an Integrity Commissioner is to ensure the existence of robust and effective policies, procedures, and mechanisms that enhance the citizen’s perception that their Council (and local boards) meet established ethical standards and where they do not, there exists a review mechanism that serves the public interest,” the Integrity Commissioner noted in her report to council presented during council’s March 25 meeting. “The practical effect of achieving this objective is an increase in trust, respect and engagement in municipal affairs.”

It is crucial however to understand the role of a member of a municipal council, what they can and can’t do, and the various rules they must follow, from the Municipal Act to a council code of conduct document.

Though none of the seven complaints filed over the two-year period covered by the update report were deemed to require investigation, Meaford’s council has seen the result of a valid complaint filed with the Integrity Commissioner and investigated in the not so distant past. Back in 2021, the Integrity Commissioner recommended training for Meaford’s councillors after investigating complaints filed after Councillor Tony Bell suggested in open council that municipal staff members who were away from work on stress leave might have a ‘decision’ to make.

So I am suggesting that if we have people on the inside of this municipality, and they feel that they are overwhelmed, that it is too much, in any business, people have to make a decision for themselves and for their families. What is the very best road for them? And if they truly believe that things have, and I’m just going to say it, if they’ve got to you, if you are overwhelmed, you may have to make a decision,” Bell said in part during a May 31, 2021 council meeting.

Two complaints were received by the Integrity Commissioner, who investigated and then presented their findings to council with a recommendation that members of council receive some additional training.

In their analysis of the complaints, Principles Integrity noted the impact of Bell’s statements on municipal staff.

The Councillor’s statement took many of the participants and observers in the meeting aback. If it was not immediately clear to those in attendance that the Respondent’s comments were entirely inappropriate, it was evident that, upon reflection, that a counterbalancing statement was required,” noted the Integrity Commissioner’s report. “On June 1, 2021, within 90 minutes of each other, both the Mayor and the CAO sent emails to all staff advising of the organizational changes and, significantly, emphasizing the appreciation of all staff of the municipality in their respective roles.”

The Integrity Commissioner’s report after their investigation recommended an in-person training session for members of Council and senior municipal staff, which was undertaken in November 2021, and included an overview of the provisions of the municipal Code of Conduct, the roles and responsibilities of councillors and municipal staff, and guidance for dealing with sensitive topics such as mental health issues.

After the report had been presented to Council on September 27, 2021, Councillor Bell expressed regret for his remarks, and he explained that no malice had been intended.

I do want to be very clear on this, through the investigation, I can only say that Principles Integrity is an absolutely professional organization,” Bell told Council. “They did a very complete investigation. I believe that the result should be looked upon as something absolutely positive. We’re going to benefit, I really, truly believe that. I absolutely look forward to the opportunity for an open conversation with Principles Integrity and staff.”

In an era when checks and balances on those who we elect to represent us are more important than ever, I am thankful that we have an Integrity Commissioner to both investigate complaints made by the public, as well as to provide advice to our members of council when they feel they need it.

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