A commentary by the vice-chair of Grumpy Taxpayer$ of Greater Victoria, a non-partisan citizens’ advocacy group for municipal taxpayers.
It’s curious that contentious issues facing a municipal council are often dealt with late in the afternoon just before a summer long weekend.
While you were on vacation sipping lemonade somewhere, Victoria’s city council on Aug. 3 decided to breach the trust of voters under its proposed code of conduct.
Contrary to the advice of staff and Mayor Marianne Alto, it shut out the public from making complaints directly to an independent, unbiased third-party.
The bogus arguments made by Coun. Dave Thompson — supported by councillors Matt Dell, Jeremy Caradonna, Krista Loughton and Susan Kim — would see public complaints made through and vetted by individual councillors.
Following backlash, a failed attempt to defend the decision was quickly made in these pages. Thompson tried several arguments.
Thompson says few cities are wide open to anyone lodging complaints.
So what? Perhaps the experience of those cities should be reviewed?
Are councils in Vancouver and Surrey more enlightened? Do those cities trust residents more and value engagement to a greater degree?
Thompson says the cities tend to be larger ones that have more financial resources.
Seriously? How much of a price, if any, should be put on opening council to improve transparency and accountability?
Council recently approved a 2023 consolidated budget of $480 million to deliver more than 200 services, programs and infrastructure. Council seems to be able to find money on various nice-to-do-items or pet projects. It recently approved spending $750,000 just to cover consulting and design fees to complete the design to renew the 58-year-old Centennial Square beside City Hall.
A model allowing the public to lodge complaints, which costs an estimated $200,000 annually in larger jurisdictions, would lead to better decisions and savings to cover the modest costs.
That said, we don’t actually know the potential cost.
Thompson says it would be poor governance to waste staff time and taxpayer dollars processing politically motivated, fabricated complaints.
Is that so? The job of an ethics commissioner — either a staff or a contracted position — would certainly include screening out vexatious complaints or those without merit.
Holding public office comes with varying degrees of public scrutiny and so it should. If councillors can’t handle the democratic checks of complaining residents, maybe they should unplug from the prattle on social media or find another job.
Or, as one resident opined, “Grow tougher skin, be accountable to your constituents and stop trying to muzzle democracy.”
Thompson says there are also other mechanisms that members of the public have had for many decades — without any code of conduct — emails, knocking on the door, voting in elections, attending council meetings, letters to the editor, etc.
How is that working out? Given the extent of misconduct among councils, the province saw it necessary to mandate a code of conduct, which was supported by the vast majority of municipalities.
Clearly, existing remedies around misbehaving councils were thought insufficient and the issue critical. It’s telling that past Victoria councils have been opposed to the idea for more than a decade.
An effective, efficient code of conduct is meant to address such vexatious issues as disputes among elected officials on municipal council and regional district boards, mistreatment of staff members, conflict of interest violations, alleged breaches of procedures or rules during meetings or the duty to respect confidentiality, marginalization of specific council or board members, and inappropriate use of social media.
Elected officials should be reminded “responsible conduct is grounded in principles such as integrity, accountability, respect, and leadership and collaboration in a way that furthers a local government’s ability to provide good governance to their community.”
So says the province in the local governance and powers section of its website “Responsible conduct of locally elected officials.”
Thompson says Victoria needs a good code of conduct — one that is effective at improving behaviour, and efficient with resources.
Agreed, but that won’t happen when the fox is in charge of the chicken coop.
It makes no sense to place councillors in an impossible position with colleagues or political adversaries or the public. An independent third-party — such as Vancouver-based The Integrity Group — will be seen by the public as fair. Obvious conflict of interest is eliminated.
Allowing residents to participate in laying complaints will help rebuild faith and trust in municipal governance. To do otherwise will undo much of the commendable work council has done so far on the governance file.
It troubles us that this decision, supported by political novices, ignores staff recommendations and may foreshadow other failures of courage in the broader governance review.
Is Victoria too small to be held fully accountable? If so, wouldn’t a regional integrity commissioner, as recommended by the MNP Governance Review, solve the issue of addressing complaints?
Staff will present a draft code of conduct for discussion this fall. There’s still time to be bold, to talk to voters and reverse this ill-advised and unworkable decision.
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