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North Cowichan’s Standards of Conduct policy fails the electorate

Public cannot file complaints against councillors for bad behaviour

It’s called the Standards of Conduct policy and it’s full of language that might make you conclude North Cowichan is a model of respectability, ethics and truth.

Truth is, the policy itself is an insult to citizens, who have no right to lodge a complaint against a municipal politician who behaves in a disrespectful manner.

Passed in 2018, the policy applies to members of council and committee members, and is intended to serve as a guide to good conduct.

It specifically references honesty, integrity, ethics, the public interest, positive communication with the community, and the importance of correcting errors in a timely and transparent manner.

It values “listening to and considering the opinions and needs of the community in all decision making, and allowing for respectful discourse and feedback.”

It says everyone should be treated with dignity — other council or committee members, staff and the public.

Here is where it all falls apart for you and me.

The policy states: “An alleged breach of this Standard of Conduct policy may be submitted by a Council or Committee Member or Staff.”

The word “public” is missing.

That means if a council member uses social media, for example, to spread false information or launch personal attacks there is nothing the public can do about it under the policy.

That is wrong, unfair, and not in keeping with the spirit of the policy.

In 2021, the Union of BC Municipalities in cooperation with the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Local Government Management Association produced the document, Forging the Path to Responsible Conduct in Your Local Government.

The guidance document says each municipality must decide who can file a complaint — “e.g., elected officials, staff or the public.” And while there are costs associated with allowing the public to file complaints, those costs can be reduced through measures such as “informal resolution.”

It further states: “From a public trust perspective, consideration could be given to allowing complaints from anyone impacted by the conduct (e.g., members of the public who are impacted by the erosion of good governance resulting from the conduct).”

Surrey has an Ethics Commissioner and Vancouver an Integrity Commissioner.

After a freedom-of-information request, North Cowichan provided me with a recording of the 2018 meeting at which council approved the policy. The public’s right to launch a complaint was never mentioned.

In North Cowichan, Chief Administrative Officer Ted Swabey says the policy “is a guide to assist Council in decisions faced in the course of carrying out Council duties and to support them in being proactive toward ethical dilemmas” and that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms "protects the rights of all Canadians, including elected officials, to free speech. In my view, administering the policy in a manner that restricts political speech...would run afoul of the freedom of expression protections….”

We are now into an election year, and some critical issues are at stake, including the fate of the 5,000-hectare Municipal Forest Reserve, also known as Six Mountains.

The public deserves respectful and truthful debate from its elected officials. When those officials cross the line, it’s important that citizens have recourse.

It’s time for council to address unfinished business.

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— Larry Pynn, March 8, 2022


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