A new bill brought forth by the government of Manitoba will create basic codes of conduct for municipalities, mandate respectful workplace training, and impose sanctions on councillors who break the rules.

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A new bill brought forth by the government of Manitoba will create basic codes of conduct for municipalities, mandate respectful workplace training, and impose sanctions on councillors who break the rules.

"Three years later, it’s been a long time coming, and it’s a good day," said Joy Sul, mayor of the Rural Municipality of St. Andrews and one of the voices who had called on the province to enact stricter legislation.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Municipal relations minister Jeff Wharton scrums with the media at the Manitoba Municipal Administrators Association Conference in Winnipeg on Monday, April 23, 2018.
Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press 2018.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Municipal relations minister Jeff Wharton scrums with the media at the Manitoba Municipal Administrators Association Conference in Winnipeg on Monday, April 23, 2018. Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press 2018.

"We hear about all the bullying in schools. At our level, at our age, this is not acceptable," she said, thanking Municipal Relations Minister Jeff Wharton for introducing Bill 2, the Municipal Amendment Act (Strengthening Codes of Conduct for Council Members).

"We’re impressed," agreed Cheryl Christian, mayor of West St. Paul. "The mandatory training will be excellent if we all start off on the same page. Hopefully, the key focus is then on prevention."

However, Christian and Sul said they would still like to see an independent integrity commissioner appointed to advise rural communities, similar to the City of Winnipeg position. In 2017, the city hired lawyer Sherri Walsh to investigate complaints about council members and offer advice on conflicts of interest.

Wharton’s office and the Association of Manitoba Municipalities have been conducting consultations on ways the province can legislate better behaviour -- if that’s indeed possible -- without overstepping its bounds. The minister said there are still discussions to come, but Bill 2 provides the first steps forward.

"Over the next weeks... we’re going to continue to collaborate with our mayors and reeves and councils to ensure that we get this right. This is a serious issue we have," Wharton said. "As you know with our no-wrong-door policy here in the legislature, certainly we wanted to carry that off and into our municipal partners as we move forward."

Under the new legislation, all municipal officials would be required to take respectful workplace training within 90 days of being elected or re-elected, or possibly face suspension from council.

Bill 2 prescribes a basic code of conduct for all municipalities, except the cities of Winnipeg and Brandon, where Wharton said more talks are underway about possible amendments to their respective charters.

It also insists municipalities’ codes of conduct be established by bylaw, "which would strengthen the provisions of the code and enhance accountability and transparency," the province said in a prepared statement.

The bill would allow the minister to set additional sanctions for those who breach codes of conduct, including fines and suspensions of members for up to 90 days.

The amendments in Bill 2 would come into force 180 days after the legislation receives royal assent, which would likely happen in June.

Christian said the sanctions proposed thus far -- fines and suspensions -- are fine by her, even if they mean reprimanded officials aren’t at work for extended periods.

"It has to send a message. We’re elected to represent residents, we’re in a very unique position. We had asked for protection (from the province) under Workplace Health and Safety, but we’re not employees and we’re not employers. And so how do you address that?" she said.

"What’s coming forward is ways to address misconduct… We’re newly-elected mayors and the residents in our communities have sent a message that they don’t want misconduct on council. They want that to be dealt with. So if their councillors or their mayors are needing to be sanctioned, we hope the community is supportive," Christian said.

"Everyone deserves to work in a safe work environment."

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont expressed initial support for the bill, but wants to see its scope widened.

"It’s great that it covers municipal councillors in rural areas, but there’s still nothing for MLAs. So we still don’t have an adequate code of conduct that applies to this building, to members of the legislature. And that would be a welcome addition to this legislation," he said.

He thanked his colleague, Liberal MLA Judy Klassen, for bringing forward a private member's bill last spring also aimed at curbing bad behaviour on municipal councils.

"This is very similar to the legislation that we put forward… and it was voted down two or three weeks ago. I thank Judy for putting it on the government’s radar and we’ll certainly look very seriously at supporting (Bill 2). Let’s hope they can make a few amendments and maybe make it even tougher."

jessica.botelho@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @_jessbu