While the town of Lincoln is being applauded for having no formal integrity commissioner complaints over the last two years, councillors still have some questions.
The bulk of the Oct. 2 council meeting was taken up by a conversation with Jeffrey Abrams, one of the integrity commissioners the town works with from Principles Integrity.
Councillor’s had questions for him about a number of big topics in the news lately, such as dealing with staff, harassment, and leaks.
Here’s how those conversations went.
HARASSMENT BY COUNCILLORS:
A big conversation across Ontario, Abrams said, has been around how integrity commissioners engage on complaints relating to disparagement, disrespect and harassment.
Abrams said in some cases, some newly elected officials have had trouble “understanding their role.”
“Some newly-elected Members fresh off the campaign trail arrive in office believing their job is to run the municipality, and may overstep their proper role, inadvertently getting into staff’s management, administration, or operational functions,” the report said. “Individual Members of Council have no role telling staff what to do or how to do it … Interrogating or cross-examining staff because a Member wants a different answer than staff are able to provide, or to repeatedly hammer one’s point, will be experienced as harassment or intimidation even when the Member claims to be merely ‘asking the hard questions.’”
Mayor Sandra Easton asked Abrams for advice when it comes to councillors feeling frustrated with staff members when the system doesn’t work the way they want it to.
Abrams told her it’s important to remember the power imbalance between councillors and staff, and what staff can do to defend themselves in the face of critical onslaught.
Councillor Mike Mikolic asked if it might be better for councillors to only communicate with staff through the chief administrative officer, to which Abrams said that route is possible, but he doesn’t recommend it in all scenarios.
For all routine things, such as booking meeting rooms, Abrams said there’s no reason councillors shouldn’t go directly to staff.
But if it’s something not-routine, and he used the example of a number of residents claiming their garbage wasn’t picked up, Abrams suggest they go through the chief administrative officer.
Further to that, Abrams referenced Bill 5: the Stopping Harassment and Abuse by Local Leaders Act, which failed to pass second reading.
Abrams said the bill failing was a good thing.
The Bill set out do to two things: require that an elected official abide by their municipalities workplace violence and harassment policies, and allow municipalities to direct their integrity commissioner to apply to court to have an elected official removed for failing to comply with the policies.
Point one, Abrams said, can be done through regulation, not legislation.
The second point, Abrams said, missed the mark.
While it may be warranted to have someone removed under rare egregious circumstances Abrams said, “to remove an elected official from municipal office would require court process — with the concomitant delays, expense and uncertainties associated with applications to court.”
HARASSMENT BY THE PUBLIC:
Easton also brought up an issue the region has been dealing with: a potential code of conduct for members of the public.
Rather than a code of conduct, Abrams recommended the region create a policy document to address concerns, and not engage with those who violate the policy.
“At the end of the day, your ability to sanction members of the public is really quite limited. It really boils down to not engaging with them if they violate your policy,” he said. “So rather than a single code of conduct for members of the public, I think it would make sense for a municipality that is facing some concerns to identify those concerns and build a policy to address those concerns.”
He also suggested those officials experiencing harassment online create a policy that is visible on their websites and social media.
“Something to the effect of a statement says, ‘I’m going to check this page a couple of times a week, and I reserved myself as the administrative administrator of the site, the ability to remove and’, you know, a little bit of a list of what you have the ability to remove, and it ranges from stuff that’s on off topic or commercial repetitive to the offensive things that unfortunately we’re all familiar with,” he explained. “So twice a week you look at your site and the overall offending post, you can’t be criticized for having done that if what you’re doing is keeping to the administration of the policy about how the site be used.”
Another important tidbit, Abrams said, revolves around avoiding leaks of sensitive information.
“If we find that a member of an or an elected official or an appointed official knowingly breached their obligation to maintain confidentiality, we are likely to be making a recommendation for a significant sanction,” Abrams said.
Councillor Lynn Timmers asked for further clarification about these leaks, asking what these sanctions may be, which Abrams clarified would be a public reprimand and a suspension of pay for up to 90 days.
Timmers also asked about cellphones in closed session, wondering if Abrams has had any complaints about people having cellphones on them while in closed.
Abrams explained that he had a client who did take cellphones away for closed sessions, and it’s not a practice he recommends.
“It may have been a bit performative,” he said. “In fact, it interfered with good practices, good governance practices, your ability to quickly research something or to send a text. Obviously, recording information on a cellphone during a closed session would be something that would attract significant sanction, but we’ve not had that experience.”
Timmers understood, but said she still doesn’t like the optics of people having their cellphones out during closed session meetings.
By Abby Green, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Oct 05, 2023 at 11:42