Council's Code of Conduct Not Up To Code
In their first meeting after it was announced that Calgary lost 42,700 jobs in April, council decided to spend more than two hours rehashing an 18-month old political argument. They wasted time debating a potential Code of Conduct violation, without ever realising that the Code of Conduct itself is flawed.
Back in December 2018, Councillor Jeromy Farkas sought advice from the city staff that manage councillor pay, and they informed him that councillors would receive an automatic pay increase absent a vote to change the policy. The city’s acting Chief Financial Officer disagreed, arguing that councillor pay would not automatically increase. Perhaps understandably, the rest of council sided with the CFO and blocked Farkas from introducing his proposed fix to the policy.
Less than a week later, the city confirmed that Farkas had been correct and that a vote would be needed – a vote which promptly passed at the next meeting. But complaints had already been filed with council’s Integrity Commissioner over a social media post by Farkas that showed which councillors had blocked his motion on a piece of paper usually used to display the record of a vote.
The city’s Integrity Commissioner was tasked with investigating whether Farkas had broken council's Code of Conduct when using this piece of paper, because technically, when a motion is blocked there has been no official vote.
Somehow, this pedantic investigation took 18 months, and came back to council's most recent agenda in the form of a short 5-page report. The report found that while Farkas had been correct about the pay issue, he had violated Section 11 of the Code of Conduct by “undermining public confidence”.
Regardless of your views on this complaint, Section 11 is a particularly Orwellian turn of phrase that is an affront to our democratic system.
According to Section 11, “a Member must respect and comply with the law and avoid conduct that, in the eyes of a reasonable Calgarian, undermines, or has the potential to undermine, public confidence in city governance.”
Like many a mediocre bylaw before it, this wording embraces misdirection by starting out with a perfectly reasonable requirement to comply with the law followed by the unconnected assertion that the role of a councillor is to not undermine “public confidence in city government.”
There are several things wrong with Section 11:
First, it is so broad that every councillor will regularly breach it, but enforcement will be unequal.
For example, if two councillors argue about whether the city has cut spending or simply increased spending more slowly, the decision as to which councillor is undermining public confidence in the city’s budgeting process would be left to a majority vote of council – a political action.
Second, democratically elected bodies are not entitled to the confidence of the public – that trust must be earned and maintained.
After numerous scandals and a lost referendum vote, the public’s confidence in Calgary council has been tarnished in recent years.
Third, councillors are not supposed to represent the views of the city to the people, they are supposed to represent the views of the people to the city.
Independent councillors are not tools of the establishment required to "toe the party line". Not every councillor was elected to be a yes-man who only promotes the position of the mayor or of city staff.
It also should not be lost on anyone that confidence in government can be divided along ideological lines.
While some might take a utopian view that governments can do no wrong, others are sceptical about the wisdom of an ever-expanding City of Calgary government.
In most government systems, an Official Opposition exists specifically to keep the establishment in check. Using a Code of Conduct to prevent councillors from doing the same will only harm our democratic process, not protect it.
Council’s Code of Conduct should be amended to govern only abusive or illegal behaviour, like libel or defamation, rather than any action that might annoy other councillors such as the type of paper a list is written on.
Megan McCaffrey is the Executive Director of Common Sense Calgary.