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This article was published 6/2/2018 (1024 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The ethical foundations at city hall are not crumbling, but a new code of conduct promises to strengthen those foundations in ways that, it’s to be hoped, will increase public trust in the integrity of our civic politicians.
Sherri Walsh, an experienced human-rights lawyer, was appointed as the city’s first integrity commissioner in April 2017, and on Feb. 22, her proposed code will be debated by city council.
The new code replaces a 1994 document that focused mainly on prohibiting councillors from benefiting financially from the performance of their public duties. Enforcement of the code relied on complaints about violations being brought before the courts. As numerous developments have made clear, the original code was weak and inadequate.
First, there were several scandals involving allegations of political favouritism, misuse of public money and even corruption during Sam Katz’s three terms as mayor (in running to replace Katz, Brian Bowman promised to clean up city hall). Second, the public became increasingly insistent on higher ethical standards for its civic politicians. And, finally, it was recognized that codes adopted more recently in other jurisdictions were broader in scope and stricter in terms of enforcement.
Political ethics is a complicated field, involving matters of legality and values. Criminal Code provisions exist that penalize serious offences, such as bribery and kickbacks. Codes of conduct are meant to prevent and correct misconduct that does not rise to the level of criminality.
It must be remembered that codes apply only to the behaviour of public office holders acting in their official roles; they are not meant to judge whether individuals are, in general terms, living an ethical life. This distinction is often overlooked in public debates.
In the past, there have been debates over whether integrity in public life was best left to the political process, or whether codified rules with an enforcement mechanism were required. That debate has largely ended. Today, there is a strong consensus that codes are needed to force politicians to be ethically aware and to comply with a set of ethical standards.
In several respects, Winnipeg’s new code of conduct reflects current thinking and practice on how best to promote integrity in public life.
A preamble and a set of principles set forth the norms of proper behaviour that are being promoted by the code. Cynics might be tempted to dismiss such noble declarations as symbolic window dressing, but in fact they provide aspirational goals that councillors should strive to achieve, and can be used to interpret the detailed legal provisions of the code.
The new code identifies 10 rules intended to deal with ethically sensitive situations, such as real and perceived conflicts of interest, the acceptance of gifts and benefits, the handling of confidential information, the use of city staff and resources and obstruction of the work of the integrity commissioner.
Most of the 10 rules are of the "thou shalt not" variety. Rather than such negative lists of wrongdoing, a few contemporary codes rely on positive descriptions of proper behaviour or "rightdoing."
The code provides for both formal and informal complaint processes. The complaint procedures respect administrative law principles of fairness and reflect practices in wide use across the country. The provisions allow the integrity commissioner to investigate alleged violations of the code.
In the opinion of Walsh, there would have to be amendments made by the Manitoba legislature to the City of Winnipeg charter to grant authority to order the production of documents and the testimony of individuals.
Both the report and the code make it clear that education and prevention are to be preferred over a "gotcha" approach of detecting and punishing misdeeds. Penalties, ranging from the requirement for public apologies and loss of council positions up to fines, reflect the fact that offences can vary in their motivation and seriousness.
Adoption of a reasonable and fair code of conduct is a good first step. Now the challenge is to embed its values and principles into the culture at city hall so that it becomes a living document.
Commissioner Walsh was wise to involve councillors in the development of the code, because now they have a sense of ownership and a greater commitment to the document.
It has not been the general practice to involve the public in the development of such codes, which is unfortunate because citizens should know what ethical standards they can expect of elected officials. The proposed code should be posted on the council website and the public should be invited to comment.
Paul G. Thomas is professor emeritus in political studies at the University of Manitoba. He has written on ethics in public life and advised the governments of Canada, Manitoba and New Brunswick on the development of codes of conduct.