By Stephen Dafoe
Morinville – Council voted unanimously in favour of adopting a new Code of Conduct Feb. 12, replacing an eight-year-old policy governing how members of Council should go about their private and public business in relation to their role as elected officials.
The new policy sets some ethical and interpersonal standards for Council to follow while helping Council to govern effectively. In short, the document outlines what councillors must keep confidential and what they may make public; it outlines what they can accept from the public and what the must reject. The document also clearly outlines areas where they must be completely hands off with respect to Town business.
On the matter of confidentiality, the document holds nothing that was not required of Council before. Councillors are not to divulge confidential information publicly, particularly anything discussed in camera (those portions of the meeting the public are not permitted to attend) and any information protected by the province’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPP).
Official information on Council decisions and resolutions are to be released to the media and the public by the Council as a whole, the mayor or someone designated to act on the mayor’s behalf.
Councillor David Pattison raised a question of confidentially between the Town’s Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) and Council members, particularly comments made in and out of camera and comments made back and forth via e-mails. “Anything a councillor shares with a CAO,” he said. “I don’t have to write confidential on the top of the e-mail. It’s just a given.”
Pattison put forth an amendment motion for a Council / CAO privilege until it is in the public domain. “I do see it as very important that we have council / CAO trust incorporated into this,” Pattison said in explaining his motion for amendment.
Deputy Mayor Boutestein did not support the IDEA. “If we’re kids, we need to have it written down for us,” Boutestein said, adding it was already included in the existing wording without extra verbage. “We’re adults. That’s got to be an expectation. It doesn’t have to be written in here.”
Councillor Holmes said it was outside Council’s code to deal with the conduct of the Town’s only employee. “We can’t put direction towards what that position will do,” Holmes said, adding the document was intended to address Council’s own behaviour.
Pattison’s motion was defeated 4:1.
Gifts not welcomed
There won’t be any free Cadillac SUVs or no-charge haircuts for Council members. The new Code of Conduct is clear on the matter of gifts: “No member of Council shall solicit or accept a reward, gift or benefit of any kind, personally or through a family member or friend, which is connected directly or indirectly with the performance or duties of office.”
The rule does not prohibit filling up their campaign coffers with legal political contributions or filling up their bellies with reasonable quantities of food and beverage at banquets and receptions Council members may attend. Likewise, food, accommodations, transportation and entertainment trickling down from higher orders of government or neighbouring municipalities are permitted.
However, accepting invitations from contractors and potential contractors to attend special events are a no go. It is believed accepting Oilers tickets of free seats at a concert could be viewed as giving the contractor an unreasonable level of access to members of Council or a sense of indebtedness from the free tickets.
The document has some provisions to prevent discrimination on the basis of age, gender, race, religious belief or sexual orientation.
Councillor David Pattison asked to modify the portions dealing with discrimination to tie INTO things identified in the Alberta Human Rights Act and its subsequent amendments. “I think it important we defer to another order of government,” he said. “Every municipality could have its own definition of discrimination. We all know what discrimination and harassment look like when it happens to us.”
Holmes suggested simply adding the missing elements rather than have one document refer to another provincial document. Boddez agreed, stating he would not take the time to refer to the Act as an extra step. He advocated bringing Council’s Code of Conduct in line with elements contained in the Human Rights Act. Pattison’s motion passed.
Conflicts of interest
The new Code of Conduct gets into specifics on conflicts of interest. Council members are not to use their weight as elected officials for any other purpose than their official duties as councillors, and they are prohibited from using privileged information – unavailable to the public – for any purpose other than Council business.
Councillors are also prohibited from obligating themselves to individuals and organizations in a way that would grant those people and organizations preferential or special treatment. There is a complete hands-off policy when a Council member has a financial interest in the organization.
Town letterhead and facilities are protected from potential Council abuse in the Code. They are not to make “unreasonable or unintended use of corporate materials, equipment, facilities or employees for personal gain or for any private purpose.”
While councillors are not to use employee resources for private purposes, they are also not to hand out directions to Town Staff. The new Code of Conduct reminds councillors their single employee is the Town’s CAO and that they are not to give direction to any municipal employee.
The new Code of Conduct is one outcome of the $25,000 Municipal Affairs Grant Council received under the Regional Collaboration Program’s Mediation and Cooperative Processes Component. The funding was intended to help Council and the Town’s CAO develop policies and protocols so Council could govern collaboratively. Russ Farmer and Associates Consulting Ltd. Was employed to create a work plan for the project.
Council also talked briefly Feb. 12 about a request to provide information to the province on its own Conflict of Interest Act. Councils in the province have until Mar. 1 to provide their input to the province.