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  • Ian McCormack

Ethics in Local Government

This weekend I provided the same presentation to the Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association (SUMA) twice. On Groundhog Day. That small irony did not go unnoticed, mostly by me because I was the presenter both times.


The topic that drew two groups of 200 people into the room was about ethics in local government. Specifically, it was about ‘Strong Ethics Build Strong Hometowns’ or some derivation of that. I was a bit surprised when SUMA asked me for the repeat performance but in retrospect, and in discussion with elected officials and municipal managers alike, the topic seems to be first and foremost in many people’s minds.


As I told the gathered group, it’s often easier to identify unethical conduct than it is to identify ethical conduct – our spidey-senses know when something doesn’t feel or look right more often than when something is above board. I sometimes hear it called ‘passing the smell test.’

After kicking off the session with a brief overview of where the term ‘ethics’ comes from and how it might apply to local government, I turned the tables on the group and asked them whether they thought ethics were circumstantial – do they act differently in their public role than they would in private? The consensus was that ethics ought not to be circumstantial – that a truly ethical person would act the same way in public as they would when nobody is watching, although many admitted they would be more circumspect or reserved if the camera was on or the gallery was full.


Examples of how ethics comes to play in local government include real (not perceived) conflicts of interest, how council deals with gifts (you do have maximum allowable gift value in a bylaw somewhere, don’t you?), the use of inside influence because you are a bigwig in town, pre-existing contracts from before you were elected, and insider information you could use once you are no longer on council. There are other examples, but these seem to form the core.


Oaths of office and statements around codes of conduct or codes of ethics exist and officials sign onto them, but they are just words on a page. Many a council member has agreed to abide by some set of rules put down in black and white, and then gone off to do their own thing. At least when there is a formal code of some sort, there is a standard to which everyone can be held equally to account. Sanctions can be applied as required. Well, they can be applied if they exist. Too often at the moment, there are two problems.


First, there may be no sanctions identified. It’s not much good identifying the transgression, but not the penalty.


Second, and this is where politics comes in, is whether there is the political will to apply sanctions. A mayor asked me for some advice between sessions in Regina. He had a rogue council member who was clearly, in the mayor’s opinion, acting unethically. Based on what the mayor said, other members of council were fed up with the conduct too. Even though the action was counter to the principles of good governance, the mayor indicated no appetite to sanction the councillor even though types of available sanctions were laid out in bylaw. I asked the mayor whether the code of conduct really existed if there was no will to apply the penalty. Does a law exist if there is no enforcement?


Ethics is a growing field in local government, and it’s one we are running into time and time again in projects that ostensibly have nothing to do with ethics. How does your council handle the issue?

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