It’s not a pretty sight.
The mayor of Nanaimo is trying to chair a council meeting. He’s not having a good term. Most of his councillors have demanded his resignation because of alleged bullying. Soon the City will file suit against him for an alleged breach of confidentiality, and the RCMP will begin an investigation of other complaints, assisted by a special prosecutor.
The mayor denies all wrongdoing, and no allegations have been proven in court. But at this particular meeting, last October, the troops are restless. Discussion is heated. One councillor paces the room and eventually yells at the mayor: “Bite me!” And that pretty much brings the ‘meeting’ to an end.
Is there something nasty in the water in Nanaimo? Unfortunately not. The reality is that bad behaviour is happening at local governments around the province. Not all of them, but enough to cause concern.
It’s unpleasant and shocking (and sometimes criminal). It tears individuals and communities apart. Good governance becomes a distant dream.
At the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) convention last fall, delegates passed a resolution asking the provincial government (Mama Bear, if you’ve read my book) to give local governments the power to appoint local Integrity Commissioners.
The idea was that such individuals would help encourage better behaviour by advising and educating, and also by investigating breaches of good conduct.
In response, the UBCM created the Working Group on Responsible Conduct. It includes staff from UBCM, the ministry responsible for local government, and the association that represents local government managers.
The group released a consultation paper earlier this spring, and it’s been reviewed by elected officials and senior staff around the province. Recommendations will come to the UBCM conference this fall.
The working group started by defining ‘responsible conduct’ as being grounded in honesty and integrity, and enabling governance that is transparent, ethical, lawful, collaborative, effective and efficient.
The group also recognized that ‘questionable conduct’ (what I call bad behaviour) is not just a B.C. problem; it happens across Canada. So they looked at the tools available here and in other provinces to encourage and enforce good conduct.
Now, to be clear, it’s not that we elect unprincipled, brutish and self-serving councils and boards. Local politicians are not bad people. They’re our neighbours. But they do act badly sometimes, just like the rest of us. We all make mistakes, say things we regret, and lash out unfairly at times. But why is this behaviour becoming more prevalent in local government? Why is it getting so nasty out there?
The working group identified four key pressures that contribute. The effects of social media where rudeness and yelling are routine.
The ‘post-truth’ era where emotions and beliefs trump facts. The loss of knowledge and continuity in local governments. And a lack of shared understanding about the unwritten rules of good governance.
After completing its research, the group concluded there isn’t one magic tool that will return civility to the council or board table.
A multi-pronged approach is needed that includes legislation, education, peer learning, penalties and conduct standards.
The latter, for example, can be embodied in a Code of Conduct or Ethics, which is now mandatory for local governments in some provinces, although not B.C. yet. Tools for enforcement of the code and the types of penalties vary, but are important too.
Some large cities have voluntarily appointed Integrity Commissioners (Calgary, Winnipeg). In future, smaller cities might share one.
The point is, this is a pervasive problem and local governments need support and mechanisms to address it more effectively than through yelling matches, court cases and sensational media coverage.
This saddens me a great deal. I have always thought that local government is where we learn how to get along, live together, and look after each other. To do that requires discipline and a commitment to respect and civility, to honesty and compassion.
I spent a few weeks this spring making presentations based on my book to elected officials around the province, and also to community members at library events. I heard bad behaviour stories. I also heard stories of councils working well and happily together to serve their communities.
I know from my own experience that it’s not easy. Tensions and resentments easily build. Lines of what is ‘right’ get blurred. Conflict resolution skills are in short supply.
But we simply have to figure this out. With the myriad challenges we face, we need our elected leaders to govern with respectful dialogue, integrity and honesty. Those qualities are needed in public discourse as well. But that’s the topic for another column!
Donna Macdonald served 19 years on Nelson City Council until 2014. She is the author of Surviving City Hall, published in 2016.