Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/1/2018 (1350 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A reader suggested late last year something I hadn’t thought of and, I suspect, most of you hadn’t either.
We haven’t heard much publicly from city council’s first integrity commissioner, even though it’s been nearly a year since Sherri Walsh was appointed to the job.
The person who contacted me suggested the office she officially assumed April 1 still isn’t up and running.
As it turns out, the notion that the highly respected lawyer hasn’t been hard at work is wrong, as her message posted late last month on the city website outlines in detail.
"Perhaps what you’re alluding to, in terms of what’s not up and running, is my ability to accept complaints and address and investigate them has not been put in place yet," Walsh said over the phone Friday.
That’s because the revised 1994 city council code of conduct she was researching and writing last year, is only scheduled to be tabled this month. It’s hoped it will be approved by the end of February. It will contain a complaint protocol, which is new.
"Nobody has had any trouble (finding me), that I know of," Walsh said.
The public, in fact, has already been in touch. She’s been contacted 17 times by different citizens.
"Some relating to complaints or concerns," she advised in a followup email. "Some just looking to understand what the integrity commissioner is all about. Where I have received a complaint about an individual member of council, I have advised the complainant, as per the information on my website page, that I will not be in a position to accept complaints until council has approved a protocol for receiving, investigating and reporting on complaints."
"I have indeed advised the member of the complaint — on an anonymous and confidential basis. I have advised complainants that I would bring the fact of their complaint to the member, on that basis. I have also told them that they are free to address their concern to the member, directly."
Obviously, her office, like her mind, is open and she’s listening, learning and engaging.
But, as that contact with the unnamed city council member indicates, it’s not just the public she’s been talking with.
"I have also been spending a fair bit of time being available to various members of council when they have questions about their ethical conduct," she said when we spoke.
Questions such as?
"About conflict of interest; should they recuse themselves on a given matter. Gifts. Should they accept a given gift? Mostly that kind of question. But they’ve been coming to me a fair bit, which is great. That’s what you want to see."
When city councillors aren’t reaching out to her with questions, she later suggested, it’s something to be concerned about.
"The most important aspect of the integrity commissioner’s role is to give advice," she explained. "Because, of course, that’s going to be on a proactive basis. And that’s what you want. You want to have a resource for council to guide them in their ethical conduct. That’s the role of the integrity commissioner."
There are always issues to talk about; part of the problem is that, in the past, there was no one like Walsh city that council members would reach out to.
"Ethical issues and ethical behaviour is not that easy to sort out."
Last year, Walsh herself sought advice from a Canadian expert in municipal codes of conduct after three council members recused themselves from confirming her in the position because they had employed lawyers from her firm; and then she made a point of declaring a possible conflict herself because she had given a small election campaign donation to her city councillor, John Orlikow.
The expert she consulted said there were no conflicts of merit in those instances and Walsh placed his report on the city website.
"Government ethics is an interesting thing," Walsh noted. "It’s not about being good. It’s not about being a good person. If you think about the standard things that an individual thinks about: being a good person, doing a favour for a friend or for their family member. Well, that’s exactly the thing you’re not supposed to do in a government context.
"So government ethics is not about being a good person per se… it’s about acting responsibly and professionally as a government official. It’s about preserving institutional, rather than personal, integrity. You also have to take into account the appearance of your actions."
Which, as she also pointed out, isn’t always obvious. Walsh summed up the issue of government ethics in a simple sentence: "It’s about putting the public interest before your private interest."
If only the city had someone like Walsh in place 10 years ago.
That’s how long it’s been since the conduct of a mayor, who didn’t know the meaning of conflict of interest — Sam Katz — and the buddy he promoted to run the administration — Phil Sheegl — prompted Coun. Jenny Gerbasi to propose the position of integrity commissioner.
Which is mindful of something else Walsh will bring to the city council table this month.
"The proposed code of conduct will contain a range of sanctions for council to consider imposing, in the event that a member is found to have breached the code."
It shouldn’t have taken this long for council to finally do the right thing about doing the right thing.