Listen Up! Councillors should not be forced to publicly support decisions with which they do not agree – Opinion

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Hugh Mackenzie Huntsville Doppler

Hugh Mackenzie
Huntsville Doppler

UNCUFF THEM!

There are a number of issues that are going to hit the fan in Huntsville and Muskoka before 2016 gets very old. And before they do, I believe that Town Council needs to take a hard look at the way they do business.

Council has a By-law Number 2009-25 which is a Code of Conduct for its members. On the face of it, it makes some sense, as it outlines how councillors should conduct themselves and show respect for each other, their staff and members of the public. It imposes strict penalties on those who step out of line, including censure, being barred from any Council processes that are deemed confidential and being stripped of committee assignments. All perhaps fair enough but, in my view, the by-law also muzzles individual members of Council, preventing them from expressing their own views after a decision has been made by Council and forcing them to publicly support decisions that they do not agree with. To me, this does not serve the public interest and is not a practice to be found at any other level of government.

There are two clauses in the Code of Conduct that appear, from my perspective, to be contradictory. Clause 3 states, “Local government is an open, accessible and accountable form of government. The relationship of public trust and mutual respect that has evolved between government and the public requires high standards of ethical conduct by municipal Council Members.” Amen to most of that I say, except I am not sure that public trust and respect has evolved all that much.

Clause 6 of the Code of Conduct says, “All members of Council shall communicate accurately the decision of Council or Committees, in such a manner that shows respect for the decision making process of Council or Committees, whether they agree or not.” This is the clause I have trouble with because, in my view, however innocent it sounds, it is designed to keep councillors under control and prevents them from being open, accessible, and accountable to their constituents. It is a thinly veiled threat that if they speak publicly against a decision of Council that they strongly disagree with, members of Council on the other side can impose penalties on them.

Although this clause is worded loosely, I know a number of Council members who interpret it to mean that they cannot publicly disagree with Council decisions. Consequently, they cannot fully express their views on individual decisions and they risk being ‘lumped in’ with the majority on decisions such as budget increases that may not be supported or appreciated by the general public.

It is somewhat oxymoronic to show respect for a decision you cannot agree with. Certainly at the provincial and federal levels and in many municipalities, elected members have no problem expressing public opposition to decisions made by their respective bodies. It stimulates public understanding of the issues, encourages discourse and lets people know exactly where you stand and why. What is wrong with that?

It is time, therefore, whether perceived or accurate, to take the handcuffs off of our councillors in Huntsville. The by-law needs changing or at least clarification. Members of Council should be encouraged to say exactly what they think, not just in Council but in the broader public forum as well. It facilitates transparency and accountability.

Recently, a friend of mine told me that politics in Huntsville was boring. It’s not and it shouldn’t be and it won’t be if individual elected politicians stir public interest by openly expressing their views and concerns on Council decisions, whether or not supported by their colleagues. It’s time to let it all hang out, without restrictions on elected officials about what they can say. It’s the right thing to do.

While they are at it, Council should also examine what they are discussing in private session, especially now with the Provincial Ombudsman looking over their shoulder. Ontario legislation allows municipal councils to go into Committee of the Whole, excluding the public, for three main purposes. These are personnel matters, some property matters, and when receiving legal advice. It takes some discipline, while in private session, not to stray into other discussions or issues which properly belong in open council, to avoid media and public exposure. It is a slippery slope when this happens and leads to a lack of transparency and accountability. Indeed, there is an argument to be made that if an item in Private Session is not one that is required to be there by legislation, councillors are not bound by the confidentiality requirements that would normally apply.

In the months ahead there are some serious issues coming forward that will affect Huntsville, some of which Council have direct responsibility for and others in which they have an important role to play. These include a Town budget which could have an increase of epic proportions, centralizing the provision of ambulance service in Bracebridge which will increase District bureaucracy and …. word is that hospital issues are about to boil over again, especially with the recommendation in a $46,000 report commissioned by MAHC that would see all in-house surgery in Muskoka centralized in Bracebridge.

I will have more to say about these issues in future columns. What is needed right now however, is stimulated public debate led by councillors, not only as a group, but also in their individual capacity. We need to hear their ideas, positions and concerns, unfettered by any restrictive by-laws. If there needs to be controversy in order to get action and community support, so be it. These are our elected leaders. We need to hear from them and without any hand cuffs.

16 Comments

  1. Hugh, I suggest that this is exactly the same as Cabinet solidarity that occurs regularly at both the provincial/territorial level and the federal level.

    • Hugh Mackenzie on

      Kendra: Cabinet solidarity yes but parliamentary solidarity no. It doesn’t happen very often. Municipal governments are more like a Parliament than a Cabinet, with the Exception of Toronto which has an Executive Committee under special legislation. For example, Council Meetings are required to be open to the public except under special conditions outlined above. Cabinet is always held behind closed doors.

  2. Being forced to trumpet approval of a decision you may wholeheartedly disagree with is nonsense and does nothing to aid the cause of good municipal decision making. Believe me as I know of what I speak and not many things are worse than showing false support for a decision you found morally or ethically wanting. Losing a vote on issue 5 votes to 4 should not be taken as Council approval but rather majority approval and while certainly binding and democratic , not necessarily best for the taxpayer. Dissent is part of democracy and should not disguised but embraced ! Rant for the week.

  3. Wondering when this nonsensical bylaw was passed?
    Also if it is even legal?
    Seems as if councillors can dodge responsibility for what they do in council by hiding behind this bylaw.
    IMHO a pile of rubbish.

  4. I hear you on the accountability/transparency aspect of muzzling councillors Hugh but I’m not sure that I agree in the interest of the greater good.
    In the event that a vote in council is recorded, constituents KNOW where he or she stood on the issue. Once the vote is cast and the motion is adopted, what is the point of publically disagreeing with the majority other than to demonstrate to the public that you can’t be a team player and that there is discord on council?
    I can see that combative types might love it but isn’t it a waste of time to fight a battle that’s already been won…or lost? Move on folks…just my humble opinion.

    • It is a question of personal integrity and not being complicit in decisions that don’t benefit the constituents.Rolling over will never be part of what I am and a bunch of sheep is not what council needs ever.

    • I probably fall into the “combative type” category but I do agree with Dale. You have your chance to rally your point during council meetings. If you lose the vote then…. maybe you were wrong and get behind the decision and support it.

      • And maybe Councillors are not wrong when they disagree and don’t want to be stereotyped with those who are responsible for the bad name given to given to politicians. Accountability is the true test of any elected official and accountability comes with explanation of your actions before , during and after debate. The majority of voters or non- voters are never aware of ” Recorded Votes ” , only of the Council decision and so everyone wears the same paint from unpopular or , dare I say , questionable decisions ! Every constituen should be able to know why their representative voted the way he did and muzzling Council Members after a vote in theory prohibits that ! Over and Out !

        • Bill I am sure they are not always wrong when they disagree with the play being made out on the field but come on… the team needs your head in the game, not standing on the sidelines say “I told you so”. Now we are short handed and at a real disadvantage.

  5. I think Dale is onto something here. While on council I often wondered why all votes weren’t recorded as a rule. I was also surprised at the local media when I was on council. They are (or should be) in attendance at many, if not all meetings. Why aren’t they interviewing councillors after meetings to ask why they dissented on a particular issue? On many occasions I would approach a reporter to ask if they needed or wanted more information about a particular topic and was never once taken up on my offer.
    I was once asked to do a deputation in front of council in North Bay during my term and immediately after the meeting I was “scrummed” (if that’s a verb!) by the media, TV cameras and all.
    I don’t know if it’s the small town thing where no one wants to cause controversy but I think we’d all be better served if there was more investigative reporting from our local media. It shouldn’t necessarily be up to the individual councillors to publically make their case, in my opinion.

    • Elizabeth Rice - Doppler Publisher on

      You make a good point Tim, however in doing so you also highlight the difficulty with the bylaw. I often ask councillors after a meeting for comments and clarification on why they voted against a recommendation. I do this for a number of reasons. Sometimes it is to make sure I recorded their remarks correctly. Sometimes it is because I think they may give further insight on the matter. Sometimes it is because I missed accurately and fully quoting them. It’s not about sour grapes, it’s about accurate and insightful coverage of council work. The present bylaw has a ‘chilling’ effect on councillors, and staff for that matter. I don’t think that serves anyone well.

  6. If you were on the beat when I was on council Liz I certainly would have answered your questions! I was careful to point out that my experience was from my time on council only – I don’t know if my colleagues at the time had the same experience. If the bylaw is the sole problem, I would vote for an investigation and an amendment. This would also go a long way, I believe, to dispel the notion of ‘boring’ local politics and result in greater engagement from the community and possibly a greater uptick in voter turnout as a result. I am disturbed that our council would point to a survey of a scant 250 citizens or so to somehow justify a possible large tax hike, for example.

  7. I tend to want to agree with Dale on this issue. Votes can be recorded simply by requesting that one’s vote be noted in the Minutes. Secondly, the idea of a 5 – 4 vote is not a good decision – firstly this could be overcome by the mayor voting only in the case of a tie (and by most accepted standards that vote would be in the negative – and all counsellors would know this in advance of any vote therefore don’t leave it to the mayor either side one is on). A split decision doesn’t nothing for the good of the whole – isn’t that the main purpose of the Town Council?

    As to a councillor or mayor not supporting a decision (democratically made) – one wouldn’t be expected to “trumpet” the decision but it can’t be seen as ethically wrong to state openly why one voted the way s/he did – especially if it is in the Minutes. I know in the church we often do things backwards (discussion before a motion is often made) but I am also aware that because a motion is made, does not mean it can’t be amended or even withdrawn, or reconsidered.

    Politics is far from boring. More importantly, it should be less personal and more about the community good.

  8. Derek, you are quite correct; and Tim, I do not understand how you could be unaware that one of your basic rights as a councillor is to call for a recorded vote on any issue. Of course, this right would be reserved for when you were in the minority. Even if the press, therefore, was not in attendance, they would be flagged to question you at a later time. It is important that you support the vote publicly; but your reservations have been noted, and should be extrapolated if queried.

    No Board could ever function efficiently without a similar modus operandi: potential for recorded votes and public unanimity thereafter. It has always been my understanding, however, that a Board Chair may either vote to break a tie, or to cause one; thereby defeating a motion. Hugh, is this option available to the Mayor?

    • Rob : The Mayor is the tie breaker on a Council.Odd # of Councillors dictates that there should be no ties , however if a even number vote because of absence of a member or conflict of interest declaration , a tie vote is considered a defeated motion. Tha Mayor votes last and would be the person who decides the eventual outcome whether an odd number or even number of members present. This is an elected group , not corporate so accountability is paramount !

    • Rob – For the record I was absolutely aware of my rights as a councillor to call for a recorded vote. You missed my point. My comment was whether or not it should be a more automatic process. To actually call for a recorded vote in every case would dramatically slow down the entire process when it isn’t required in a non-contentious issue. Anyone in the media in attendance, or anyone for that matter, can readily see when a councillor raises his or her hand and would immediately know where they stood on an issue. Then, a more inquisitive media person, or public member could approach that councillor for further information.

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