Honour the office

When the next municipal election cycle begins we might want to take a moment to reflect on the reality that it’s almost impossible to fire a member of a municipal council. In some ways, it might be helpful to have a recording that plays at the beginning of any call to township offices, county offices or even municipal affairs and housing. Once in office – they’re in office and four years is a long time. Not much can remove an elected municipal politician.

There are pros and cons to this of course. Stability, continuity and other things like that are probably good. Municipal projects take time, budgets stretch from one year to the next and teams need time to work together.

Once in office the hope, formerly the expectation, is that members of council will respect and honour the office. This can be evidenced through conduct in meetings and at events; because actions do speak louder than words.

In Bancroft, the Mayor wears a chain of office. It represents a delicate history and when the chain is on there is business to be done. In Hastings Highlands, back when I was covering that council, the members arrived in carefully chosen outfits. They were dressed like professionals and before each meeting the members of council greeted the press and the audience. Handshakes and hugs and often, an invitation to share a snack at break or after a meeting was extended to the audience. It allowed everyone to return to their roles as neighbours before leaving the meeting.

Some councils play and awkwardly sing our national anthem. Some observe a moment of silence – a prayer replacement that allows community leaders to ground, focus and breathe in the importance of their work and the office that they are sworn to represent.

And the office is important.

Municipal councils matter. These are the people that, as our peers, make incredibly tough decisions that should be in the best interest of our communities – no matter how difficult the subject matter, these folks are called upon to sort through the details and make strong, ethically balanced decisions. It is an incredibly tough job.

And when things start to go wrong, a return to the basics can often be the way out of the darkness.

A time to ground, focus and breathe in the importance of their work and the office that they are sworn to represent.

This is my wish for Wollaston Township.

Staff and council are struggling in a public way. On Monday, a mediator’s report will be delivered but while staff, council, former staff and the former deputy reeve were going through meetings with a mediator, a jaw-dropping report was being digested that related to a crisis within our fire services. Then, thanks to an insightful delegation by a community member, the municipality’s strategic plan was discovered – dusty on a shelf – and then almost immediately, a new strat plan process was launched with the help of another community volunteer before terms of reference could even be put in place.

Then there was the front page of Bancroft This Week.

The last time Wollaston council met the meeting date had been changed. The request for the date change came from the Reeve and if you happened to notice the front page of Bancroft This Week, the date change now makes sense. The Reeve was needed in court on what would have been a normal council day and at the end of a two-hour trial, the Reeve was found guilty of operating a motor vehicle with more than 80 milligrams of alcohol in 100 milliliters of his blood. The charges were from Feb 9 in 2016, which was also council day.

The day after the court decision the Reeve was back at the community table – saying nothing.

While there are those who will argue that the Reeve had no reason to comment, I would highlight the contents of Wollaston By-Law 40-12 (a great read). This is the code of conduct that Wollaston councilors are asked to respect. It is in place, as an additional layer of guidance, on top of the municipal act. It’s a great document.

This document, like the strat plan and basic management and oversight of our community has oft been forgotten.

For example, Section A3 demands that members of council “act in a way that enhances public confidence in local government.” And while this does not say that members of council should never make mistakes – by acknowledging the conviction and honestly addressing community concerns, the Reeve could have re-built trust in his council and in his leadership. I can only guess that legal advice relating to more charges might be the reason why the Reeve has remained silent.

So, the community is on the hook for a mediator’s bill and during the process that will aim to re-connect the disparate members of this team, the Reeve said nothing about being found guilty. Some members of council had to find out when they read the paper or had calls from ratepayers.

It’s time for Wollaston Township, staff and council, to take some time to breathe, ground and reflect on the jobs that they all asked to do. There are a multitude of guiding documents and legislation to help them stick to the straight and narrow. These reports need to be read before being pitched in the local dump. The personal relationships that are taking priority need to be addressed and ethical decision making needs to be the new norm. All members need to treat each other with respect. And the community needs to be treated with respect.

At meetings, the public gets jammed into crappy chairs in the back of an overcrowded room. There is no space for the press and there is never so much as a welcome or a statement from the Reeve about community happenings, updates, his thoughts or any of the usual things that a chair is often able to deliver so that a meeting has a tone or even, perhaps, a direction. There are no reviews or reminders of codes of conduct – interesting to note that based on a recent delegation, no conflicts have been disclosed with this current council. There are no references to asset management plans, no updates from the treasurer and at a recent meeting when an oath had to be taken regarding financial statements and no wrong-doings – jokes were made. Add to this a number of eye-rolling incidents and it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

Staff need to do their job and start showing up to meetings with documents in hand and they need to reference the rules and regulations. Councillors need to understand, follow, honour and uphold the rules and regulations and at a bare minimum – everyone needs to honour the office and what it stands for.

If not, the lawyers will get richer and a much-needed community institution will be lost to us.