Sunday, January 15, 2017

A Code of Ethics - Will It Make a Difference?

The province is requiring that the city adopt a code of ethics.  As with most initiatives, this was brought on by a problem, this time in a municipality where the province had to get involved to remove someone who was acting unethically, in conflict of interest.  They believe, or hope, that making each community have a code of ethics to guide its elected officials will prevent such problems in the future, even though most councils in the province already had councillors taking an oath that they would excuse themselves from discussions in which they had a pecuniary interest..

Just having a code of ethics won't solve all the problems.  Unless there are clear lines of responsibility for enforcing the code, what will happen if someone breaks the code?  It might end up like the current situation for enforcing election rules.  For example, if someone submits their nomination papers with ineligible signatures, the City Clerk doesn't take any action.  It has to go to court, which costs money for the individual bringing the complaint.  And that's when the rules are black and white.  Ethics tend to be more subjective - treating other members of council with respect is something that might be difficult to judge (and making a complaint about it would likely be a waste of everybody's time).

If a decision is made by council that something was unethical, there are more problems.  If all it takes is a majority of council members to decide what behaviours cross that ethical line, previous councils have shown that most council members will drift to the majority vote, if only to avoid the wrath of the mayor.  And what actions might be taken?  In my third term on council, most of the members of council thought that I should resign, and seemed to expect that the wish of the majority should force me to do so.  They were quite surprised when I told them that only a judge could remove a member of council from office, and they never had the courage of their conviction to take that step, knowing that they were on shaky ground.  The penalties for someone found in fault of the code of ethics will have to be understood and fall within the legal limits, otherwise the potential for a majority of council members to gang up on someone who is simply raising a concern that others want to sweep under the rug is too great.

One example of this is the tendency of council to try to hide things that should be public by moving topics in camera, so that not only can the public not see the discussion, but council members aren't supposed to divulge what was discussed.  The Cities Act is quite clear about this, but quite often the majority of council is more than willing to move things that might prove embarrassing into private discussions - not a good reason in my opinion, nor a reason that is in the Cities Act.  If someone raises this as being unethical, whether a member of council or a member of the public, what action will be possible if the majority of council decides that it is ethical.  As I've said, most members of council aren't at all familiar with the Cities Act, and show no tendencies to become more knowledgeable.

And there are bigger issues out there that should be covered by changes to the Cities Act, not just in a code of conduct that can be changed by council.  For example, right now the limitations to who can be on council are pretty basic - you have to be a Canadian citizen, and a resident of the community which you wish to represent for a certain period of time.  I think that more serious concerns should be addressed - for example, if you owe the city money, whether it be for taxes or parking tickets, you should be ineligible to run for office (and the City Clerk should be able to reject your nomination papers).  To me that's a basic ethical question - if you can't follow the city rules, what right have you to be in a position to establish those rules.

Sadly, I'm quite sure that council will adopt a code of ethics, and applaud themselves for doing so.  I'm equally sure that it will focus on things like treating each other with respect, and following all applicable legislation.  And just like the current rules, council members will find a way around the rules to get to do what they want.

The basic truth is that people who need a code of ethics to tell them the difference between right and wrong, are not the kind of people who should be in positions of authority.  Unfortunately, the democratic system hasn't yet figured out a way of keeping them out.

"Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do, and what is right to do." - Potter Stewart

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