Seeing examples of integrity in local politics

By Jamie Morris

Jamie is a retired teacher and serves on the Kawartha Lakes Library Board and the City’s Environmental Advisory Committee. For The Lindsay Advocate he has revived the 'Friends & Neighbours' column he once wrote for the Lindsay Post.

Councillor Andrew Veale, foreground; Councillor Kathleen Seymour-Fagan, background.

With power (great or otherwise) comes responsibility and a potential for abuse. Over the past week Kawartha Lakes Council has taken significant measures to guide, support, and enforce ethical behaviour in municipal politics. It’s also, in a decision on disposal of surplus parkland, shown us what ethical conduct looks like.

Committees/ Boards/ Task Forces

In closed session at Tuesday’s meeting council approved citizen appointments to three committees (Airport Advisory, Waste Management, and Downtown Revitalization) a board (Drainage) and a task force (Development Charges).  

Later in the meeting, councillors discussed a report and recommendations from CAO Ron Taylor for amendments to a policy and code of conduct and ethics for all committees and task forces and all  boards not governed by provincial legislation. The policy sets out the process for making appointments, and defines volunteer appointee’s roles and responsibilities. The code, as Taylor explains in his report, was modelled on the one that applies to councillors, “establishes how they conduct business for the betterment of the community,” and serves two purposes — to clearly define ethical expectations and “to protect volunteers that are supporting council and the community.”   

After spirited discussion on the fairness of the process set out for a section on expulsion of members (prompted by a deputation from Joan Abernethy, a member of the public), on a recorded vote that passed 5-4 the report was sent back to staff for a legal opinion.

Integrity Commissioner

At the same meeting an integrity commissioner for the City of Kawartha Lakes was appointed, as required by Bill 68 (brought in by the provincial Liberal government in 2017). The commissioner, whose appointment takes effect March 1, will be independent but report to council, and will advise council on matters related to councillor conduct and ethics. Having him in place will help ensure compliance with council’s Code of Conduct and with Municipal Conflict of Interest legislation.

Charles Harnick of ADR Chambers was appointed as our first integrity commissioner. He and the ADR Chambers team bring 11 years of investigative experience with over 20 municipal clients. Harnick himself has a distinguished background: he served as Attorney General of Ontario from 1995 to 1999 and was responsible for the creation of Legal Aid Ontario.

The Parkland Decision  

Council’s February 12th Committee of the Whole opened with a disclosure, later recorded in the minutes in this way: “Councillor Veale declared a pecuniary interest in relation to Item 6.1.2 as the applicant is his place of employment.”

That item, 6.1.2. was “Proposed Surplus Declaration and Sale of City-Owned Property – Portion of Elgin Park, Lindsay.” The parkland under consideration, along the southern fringe of the park, had been licensed by the City  to two businesses and had been used for parking.

Some background: The Community Services Department — which is responsible for parks — had indicated  the space was “surplus to its needs” at a Land Management Committee back in July, (The explanation was that “the subject portion of land is not utilized as parkland [and]  contains no park/ recreation infrastructure.”)

Given the licensing arrangement, the committee felt a direct sale to the two businesses at an appraised value would be appropriate.  

The two businesses confirmed their interest in proceeding with a purchase and with the conditions set (fencing the space at their own expense and removing some storage containers). Notices of the potential surplus declaration and sale were placed in three consecutive issues of the Metroland-owned weekly newspaper and on the City’s website, and a sign went up on the property itself.

Councillor Veale is general sales manager of one of the two businesses, Lindsay Buick GMC, hence his declaration of pecuniary interest.  

When Item 6.1.2 came up for discussion, Veale wasn’t in attendance; when the matter came back to the regular council meeting on Feb. 19th for approval, he left council chambers.

A very careful process had been followed, and the recommendation had come from a committee made up of representatives from various City departments and was in line with the relevant By-Law (2018-020) and the Municipal Act. This kind of direct sale is not unusual.

Had council gone ahead and approved the sale, there still would have been absolutely no impropriety.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, councillors had a series of questions for staff on the appraisal process, and they then approved a motion from Councillor Dunn that, after the appraisal, the parkland properties be placed on the open market (a second option allowed by the by-law).   

As Dunn pointed out at the council meeting, “there’s no reason the property can’t wind up in Lindsay Buick GMC hands,” but placing it on the open market avoids even the faintest suggestion of self-dealing and favouritism.

That’s what ethical conduct looks like.

1 Comment

  1. Joan Abernethy says:

    The new policies on committees, boards and task forces replace an old policy that allowed volunteers appointed by the City to boards, committees and task forces the right to not only answer, before Council, any recommendation to terminate their appointment, but also to be provided full particulars of the complaint against them, to submit materials in self defense and to produce witness testimony. That policy specifically prohibited waiver of those rights.

    The new policies removed entirely those rights, but during a process of collaboration, the mayor made amendments that were the subject of Tuesday’s debate.

    The amendments allow the mayor to collaborate with a complainant to investigate an accused person’s alleged transgression and require the mayor to interrogate the accused Member. Okay, a good start, you might say. But because the policy does not specifically prohibit waiver of this quasi-due process, the mayor can, at his or her discretion, dispose of due process, investigate entirely in secret and condemn accused members without ever notifying them or giving them a hearing. Only after they are condemned will accused Members learn they were in trouble. By then, it will be too late to repair their broken relationships, their reputations, sometimes their careers and good health.

    While maybe streamlined and convenient, these new policies are, in my view, even with amendments, dangerous to public confidence in Council. They will create an air of paranoia on committees, boards and task forces and inevitably make the City vulnerable to civil claims.

    Municipal governments committed to democratic principles do not indulge McCartheyist witch hunts. They give members accused of firing offenses not the right to a secret interrogation by the Mayor but to a fair and open hearing before Council.

    I have every confidence that this Council is committed to democratic principles and will make the right decision about these policies in due time. Change always involves trial and error and this Council has demonstrated its willingness to change.

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