by Chris Pickup
“Better safe than sorry” was the take-away for councillors from a primer on the county’s Code of Conduct and Integrity given by Haldimand’s Integrity Commissioner (IC) Charles Harnick last week.
The IC noted with some sympathy that the individual burden on municipal councillors was higher than that of any other level of government, including those holding them to account, since the IC’s role was expanded in March this year.
Confidential information can be a minefield for councillors and members of Boards, said Harnick.
“Ask yourself, do you have a personal interest in a matter before council, whether direct or indirect through family members,” Harnick said. “Is there a pecuniary interest, whether it be positive or negative?”
If so, councillors should declare a conflict before any council consideration can take place, and while not mandatory, Harnick feels they should also leave council chambers to avoid any misunderstanding. He recommends councillors make themselves aware of what is on the agenda well before the meeting.
Records of declarations of conflict of interest are kept by the municipal clerk. The legislation mandates councillors shall provide written disclosure and file it with the clerk and Harnick emphasizes they should make sure minutes reflect that even if it’s a small, trivial interest.
Gifts are also a difficult area. “Changes have become prevalent in the way things work today,” Harnick said. What would probably not have raised eyebrows in his day could cause problems for councillors today.
A financial limit on gifts allowed to be accepted was suggested. Harnick noted It was worthy of debate, as a “catch-all to protect yourselves”. Even a gift as simple as a blueberry pie could be misconstrued. A public registry is also useful the IC added … “there is nothing to hide.”
A staff member reminded council that a registry had been suggested earlier but council had decided not to go ahead with it. However staff had already polled surrounding municipalities and council will likely revisit the subject.
Personal behaviour. This includes harassment or vexatious comment.
Mayor Ken Hewitt raised the subject of social media and its “ability to bully”.
“Social media has its dangers,” Harnick agreed. “Everyone should be entitled to defend themselves. Stick to the facts. Be polite and courteous, you are not here to vilify the public. Always take the high road.”
By this time in the proceedings council members were looking somewhat concerned.
Councillor Bernie Corbett asked whether a member of council can initiate a complaint against another councillor, and was told ‘yes’. The question had arisen last term when some councillors indicated they did not feel they should be responsible for another councillor ignoring conflict of interest rules.
Councillor Dalimonte noted there were three council members receiving pensions from Stelco and did that mean a conflict of interest when discussing matters to do with the company? That could leave council without an effective quorum. However Harnick noted in such cases the non-conflicted councillors could form a quorum with as few as two members.
Another conflict could occur with Councillor Rob Shirton, who as a real estate salesperson could benefit from possible listings arising from new real estate developments within the county. Harnick noted he could still do real estate deals but “just can’t vote on it”.
The IC advised councillors to “read and really attempt to understand” the Code of Conduct document. He noted he was there to provide advice but both question and answer must be in writing.
An informal complaint procedure does not involve the Integrity Commissioner, he said. “If you can resolve issues on your own, it’s the best way.”
The IC becomes involved if there Is a formal complaint. A $200 filing fee has to be paid by the complainant with a written complaint including an affidavit of evidence, within six weeks of awareness of the problem. The filing fee will be refunded if the complaint is found to be valid.
The IC oversees the back and forth written question and answer process until he prepares a final report for council with his recommendations, which council may overrule. Penalties can range from a reprimand to suspension of remuneration for up to 90 days.
If the contravention is severe enough the IC can report to a judge and the councillor can lose his seat and be banned for up to seven years.
If at any time during the process evidence arises of a possible contravention of the criminal code, the process is suspended and the IC would call police or other appropriate authority.
Hewitt raised the possibility of an “individual witch hunt” especially at election time; however Harnick said during an election period everything is suspended. “There’s no risk of individuals throwing a dart at any one of us.”
Harnick recommended councillors read a book written on case law by John Mascarin, coincidentally the IC who oversaw Haldimand’s two integrity complaints in 2019.