An updated code of ethics for city council could address issues around members who run for provincial or federal politics, while an integrity commissioner could be hired to investigate ethics complaints.
During its recent executive committee meeting, council unanimously approved a recommendation to adopt bylaw No. 5669, the Code of Ethical Conduct for Members of City Council Bylaw, 2022.
Once adopted, the city solicitor and city clerk will pursue the services of an integrity commissioner or commissioners on a retainer basis, on an ad hoc interim basis, or jointly with other municipalities, with the contract to end Dec. 31, 2024.
The recommendations must be approved at a future regular council meeting to become official.
This updated bylaw is in response to a motion that council passed in September 2021.
Members wanted the new bylaw to provide greater detail on what constitutes ethical behaviour, expand the complaint process, provide specific leave of absence provisions for members who pursue election at other political levels, and other matters that city administration considers appropriate.
Holes in the bylaw
While the current code of ethics meets the minimum requirements, it does not address areas such as gifts and benefits, councillor expenses, use of municipal assets and services, improper use of influence, employment of relatives, actions during election periods, and leaves of absence while running for provincial or federal politics, explained city clerk Tracy Wittke.
Enhancing the policy could provide council with greater clarity on these issues.
Need for IC
The IC would work until December 2024 because there is a general election in November, so that person could train the new council on ethics issues, Wittke said.
Meanwhile, the need for an IC arose after the situation with the Downtown Facility and Field House (DFFH) board in 2018. An IC could provide council with advice about sanctioning colleagues, but council would have the final say on the overall penalty.
While there is no requirement to have an integrity commissioner (IC), using such a person to investigate and provide recommendations on ethics complaints is considered best practice since it ensures impartiality and independence, Wittke said.
“Right now, there are no conflicts of interest being investigated (within the City of Moose Jaw),” she stated.
Hiring an IC would ensure the person can impartially assess or investigate complaints and provide recommendations about sanctions while ensuring the public that the matter is being fairly addressed, she continued. Meanwhile, council would not be able to dismiss the IC except for cause.
The IC could address other areas such as providing advice and advance rulings and recommendations, preparing written materials about the IC’s role and obligations, delivering educational programs, and publishing an annual report.
Coun. Dawn Luhning was confused about why an IC is needed when city hall has the city solicitor — an in-house lawyer. She thought legal advice was the most important thing council needed when sanctioning colleagues.
An IC is required to remove any issues of conflict between that role and the city solicitor role, said city solicitor Andrew Svenson. For example, while the IC would provide a report about a situation, the city solicitor could offer advice about the next steps.
“It amazes me sometimes that it has come to this, that elected officials don’t understand what a conflict of interest is … ,” said Luhning. “It still amazes me that people think they can hire their spouse to be whatever. It’s surprising to me.”
While elected officials need to be transparent, Luhning was concerned that residents could abuse this new process and complain anytime they didn’t like a decision she helped make. Moreover, she thought adding more material to the ethics bylaw could create future legal issues.
“It’s not an easy position to be in up here. We are put on the hot seat all the time and people think they can throw vitriol at us,” she added.
“This is a good step in the right direction. It will strengthen our governance … especially in an election year,” said Coun. Crystal Froese. “If there are new members, it gives them an outlet to ask questions about how conflicts of interest arise from somebody who is experienced in that area.”
The next executive committee meeting is Monday, June 27.