Council Sets Date for Updated Code of Conduct

St. Albert city council members want to see an updated council code of conduct for their consideration before the municipal election next October.

Coun. Cathy Heron explained a previous motion asking administration to suggest updates the code of conduct had no specific date attached to it, and she wanted to see it come back by June 2017.

“I want to achieve the updates to the councillor code of conduct before the next election,” she said. “This is setting the next council up for success.”

Despite voting unanimously in favour of the motion, councillors did not pass up the opportunity to once again air their grievances with one another.

In introducing the motion, Heron referred to changes to the provincial Municipal Government Act that would establish essentially a minimum standard for municipalities’ codes of conduct, which she wants the city to surpass.

She said the first scope of the code should be prescribing what councillors must do in terms of attendance and their responsibilities, but said it must not end there – it should also address how councillors treat each other, city staff, the public and investors. She noted the current policy addresses much of this, but is lacking in describing how a breach is determined and what consequences may exist.

For example, she said the MGA refers to a mandatory offer of training to councillors found in breach of the code, but does not require mandatory attendance of said training.

“We should not ask our residents to wait for the next election to address a breach in our councillor code of conduct,” Heron said.

Mayor Nolan Crouse said he wasn’t sure what should be in or out of the code of conduct, but said he does like the idea of including consequences. He noted Strathcona County has included consequences in its own code for councillors.

He raised several concerns, including the issue of one of his council colleagues filing a freedom of information request about him, whether committees should also be bound by the code because of previous unspecified incidents, how the code would deal with councillors posting things online or in letters to the editor, how emails are answered and copied and whether there might be room for a lobbying code of conduct as well.

“I appreciate where this is heading,” he said. “I’m struggling with what the end product is going to be but I’m certainly willing to listen.”

Coun. Sheena Hughes said she had reservations about adding consequences if those consequences were to be determined by fellow councillors, and also about how much an updated code might limit freedom of speech.

“As a politician we already have a limitation on freedom of speech; you can’t just speak freely,” she said. “You’re always thinking, ‘Can I say this and what are the ramifications?’”

Hughes said she was concerned a code of conduct could be used against council members by someone who “doesn’t like them,” or could be used to perpetuate a “smear campaign.”

Coun. Cam MacKay echoed those concerns saying the code of conduct should be as basic as possible because the more complicated it is, the more likely it will be used for partisan purposes.

“We’ve seen a lot of that. Everything from RCMP complaints that didn’t exist to accusations of staff abuse that were rampant when there was no evidence, simply as a smear campaign,” he said. “If the sole purpose is to pervert the democratic process so you can’t represent your constituents, you’ll have problems.”

In closing, Heron insisted a code of conduct would be about “setting the next council up for success,” and said she was offended at the suggestion it would be used for partisan purposes.

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