BLOG #716: Councillor Joni Baechler will try again this afternoon to get a city council committee to start the process towards hiring an integrity commissioner. However, you shouldn’t hold your breath the effort will be successful.
Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2012 – London
For a great many Canadians, today marks the beginning of a new year. It's like that with council too.
After the slackish pace and sunshine of summer, the day after Labour Day signals a return to order and schedule and a renewed promise to get things done. Council could use a little of that.
And there's a further reason why it's time for council to kick it up a notch. We've reached the half-way mark of the four year term. If this group of 15 elected men and women is ever to put its notch of the post of accomplishment, now is the time to start seriously working towards it.
There's not much so far you could ring up substantial and lasting this council has done. Two years of no tax increase, with a possible third year on the horizon, is neither for the most part substantial nor lasting.
The really serious decisions required to permanently reduce costs haven't yet been taken by this council – they are benefiting from some the previous council made – so all that's happened so far is to push the costs back a year or two. The pile now totals $25 million if zero really is the target for 2013.
The very first city council event for this new year is this afternoon's gathering of the finance and administrative services committee. It has a pretty light agenda given it hasn't met for almost two months, which is not a particularly good sign urgency is in the air.
But there's one item which will surely get the blood roiling, if not at committee then surely at city council when it next meets Tuesday, Sept. 18.
Joni Baechler, the councillor for Ward 5 and a committee member, is proposing appointment of an integrity commissioner and establishment of a lobbyist registry. If all five members attend today's meeting, the committee will probably vote 3-2 in favour of recommending both ideas to council.
The previous council did approve in principle hiring an integrity commissioner and the money was put in the budget. Councillor Baechler argues, therefore, this would not constitute a new hire. However this council has not chosen previously to proceed – and whatever Councillor Baechler argues it is unlikely to do so now.
There are at least three reasons.
Some councillors will insist an integrity commissioner will cost too much. This is possible if London, as did Toronto and Ottawa, hires a full-time person equipped with all the necessary tools such as staff, office and technical resources. The total bill could easily reach $200,000-plus per year.
However, a full-time or even permanent hire is not mandatory. Some cities, such as Kitchener, hire someone on a small annual retainer. Fees are charged only when the commissioner is called in for an investigation. Kitchener's commissioner is actually a London lawyer.
Of course, if there were many investigations that would drive up the cost. Which leads to the second reason some councillors will argue.
Having someone, either on staff or on call, to investigate citizen complaints about potential misdeeds by council members will just attract more and more complaints. This is the issue some members of council have with the provincial ombudsman as our investigator of private meeting complaints.
If the first year or two that would undoubtedly be the case. There are many Londoners with suspicions about the dealings of some council members they would like to get properly aired. So you could expect this pent up demand to get expressed.
But after that there is no indication from those communities with integrity commissioners – on her blog this week Councillor Baechler lists 13 in Ontario – that the appointment causes any significant rise in complaints over the longer term.
The third reason, though, is the most telling. What would the integrity commissioner investigate since London council really doesn't have a serious code of conduct as it relates to personal integrity? Scroll down this list to item 5 (30) to see the existing Code of Conduct.
Councillor Baechler would like to fix that by adding a conflict of interest section to the current code (see page 3 of this letter). It would request that council members provide an annual written list of businesses in which they or family members were involved; of lands in London they or family members have an interest; all shares they or family members own in any corporation, public or private.
Note this would be a request, not a requirement. There would be no sanction or penalty under the Municipal Act for non-compliance.
But voters would surely want to know why some councillors didn't provide the list while others did. It could become an interesting question – perhaps even a demand – at election time.
However, don't hold your breath waiting for a majority of this council to decide this is a good idea. It’s passing by the full council at this stage must be considered a long shot.
The same fate is likely to befall Councillor Baechler’s bid to establish a registry at City Hall of anyone who lobbies public office holders. Under the Municipal Act, city council could establish a code of conduct for lobbyists; could prohibit recent council members from becoming lobbyists for a certain period of time; or could prohibit lobbyists from accepting payment that was contingent on the successful outcome of lobbying.
Could is the operative word. It is unlikely to become ‘will’ this term.