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Creating an effective Code of Conduct

Council Codes of Conduct must be created thoughtfully and proactively, with appropriate sanctions in place for those who may breach the rules in place. The problem is, that's often much easier said than done.


Across Canada, municipal councils are faced with their self-imposed rules of engagement, though the inconsistency in which they are required results in mixed approaches from the onset. While some provinces and territories mandate Codes of Conduct (or Codes of Ethics), others merely suggest their creation. Meanwhile, the variance in policy from one municipality to the next creates inequity in the expectations of local elected officials, even amongst neighbours. There is little question that councils should have a formalized Code of Conduct; how these codes are created and what they include is a greyer area.


We've seen a notably high number of municipal Code of Conduct breaches throughout Canada over the past couple of years, with many making headlines and becoming prominent stories — and therefore quite the distraction from the good work being undertaken by municipalities and decisions made by Council. What makes for a flashy headline isn't always the story that merits the most coverage, but those headlines create public perception.


In Alberta, where municipal elections were held in October 2021, already one municipality has seen a council member sanctioned for their behaviour during the swearing-in ceremony.


Across the board, we're also seeing breaches of Codes of Conduct by repeat offenders. These stories do merit somewhat more attention — unless, of course, that attention is exactly what the offender is looking for, but that's an entirely different topic of conversation.


So, why are conduct breaches seemingly becoming so common?


It's a tricky question to answer and one for which there is no real singular answer at all. In fact, I'd argue there are numerous root causes to what seems to be a consistent front-of-the-local-newspaper issue.


First, there is an inherent issue with councils being the ones to handle alleged Code of Conduct breaches from amongst their own. There is the potential for very real, as well as perceived, conflict of interest. At the very least, there are issues of friendships and voting blocs; worse is the potential for decisions made for political or personal gain —both, again, can be either real or perceived.


The solution, then, would be a third-party arbitrator to evaluate and investigate Code of Conduct complaints and provide recommendations of ensuing actions to take, if any. Recommendations for any potential repercussions should be made public when possible for reasons of transparency. There are, of course, instances where in-camera discussions are not just advisable but required; even in those cases, though, don't lose sight of the need for all decisions to be made in public. At the same time, the public does deserve some context relating to that decision being taken before their eyes. Such an approach — incorporating proper checks and balances and transparency — does not eliminate the possibility of abuse, but such abuse is certainly limited.


One obvious solution would be to employ somebody in the role of Integrity Commissioner. Still, I'm not blind to the fact that such a role would often be considered a luxury budget line that doesn't fit within spending constraints. There are solutions, such as hiring an Integrity Commissioner under a retainer structure or establishing a regional Integrity Commissioner to serve multiple municipalities simultaneously. The latter, of course, carries opportunity for economies of scale. Alternatively, the position doesn't have to be held in perpetuity, nor does it have to be filled by an individual; in instances where a Code of Conduct investigation is necessary, the most cost-effective and procedurally effective solution is often to bring in a third-party consultant.


Regardless of approach, Council must definitively outline its approach to Code of Conduct complaints, investigations, breaches, and sanctions — and they must do so before such issues actually arise. Proactivity is key. Rather than make such decisions on an ad hoc basis, processes and procedures should already be in place, open to as little interpretation as possible.


Once a breach has been confirmed, it becomes evident that penalties associated with conduct breaches are not always significant enough to act as a deterrent. This is as true for first offenders as it is for repeat offenders. There have been numerous solutions proposed for this issue, with varying severity and likely with varying results. The most extreme repercussions we've seen for code breaches are monetarily impactful, with the notion that the almighty dollar is the ultimate deterrent.


We recently heard of one municipality in which a policy was passed for a council member's pay to be directly impacted by a Code of Conduct breach, using a sliding scale with offences carrying penalties that are perceived as equal in severity. But, at the end of the day, there is no definitively right answer on how to handle Codes of Conduct, and one-size-fits-all approaches don't tend to work for municipal government.


Councils must establish Codes of Conduct appropriate for their municipality and which will best serve those that elected officials represent — the latter point being the most important.


Strategic Steps Inc. has had the pleasure of being involved in numerous processes to either develop or redevelop municipal elected officials' Codes of Conduct, as well as having taken on Code of Conduct investigations for numerous local government organizations. We've even held the position of Integrity Commissioner for a city. Our team understands these types of discussions are never black and white, and we're happy to help however we can.


Feel free to email ben@strategicsteps.ca or phone 780-909-2594, and let us know how we can help you.

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