No gifts under Sackville’s new municipal Code of Conduct, but unlimited campaign donations are OK

Mayor Higham explains why new municipal Code of Conduct does not apply to re-election campaigns

Sackville is prohibiting members of town council from accepting “fees, gifts, gratuities or other benefits,” but the new Code of Conduct bylaw, passed at the council meeting on March 9, does not apply to municipal campaign donations.

Mayor John Higham says that’s because there’s no law in New Brunswick governing such donations.

“You can accept donations and you don’t have to report them,” he said during the public question period. “I can’t see our Code [of Conduct] applying to the election period because it wouldn’t apply to non-councillors.”

The Gallant Liberals brought in legislation to limit municipal campaign spending and require disclosure of contributors, but did not implement the regulations necessary to put the new rules into effect and so far, the Higgs government has not done so either.

Now that the municipal elections have been postponed for up to a year because of the COVID-19 virus, it remains to be seen whether the provincial government will use the extra time to regulate campaign donations.

After the legislature voted to postpone the elections, Local Government Minister Jeff Carr appealed to retiring municipal politicians to stay on, but so far, Mayor Higham has not responded to my e-mail of March 17 asking if he plans to do so.

Higham announced in January he would not be seeking a second term as Sackville’s mayor.

Code governs ‘private affairs’

Councillor Andrew Black

Meantime, the new Code of Conduct requires members of council to “observe the highest standards of ethical conduct and perform their duties in office, and arrange their private affairs in a manner which promotes public confidence and will bear close public scrutiny.”

Councillor Shawn Mesheau suggested eliminating the reference to arranging private affairs because it “seems to be kind of grey,” but Councillor Andrew Black, who moved the motion to adopt the new Code, argued that councillors cannot separate their public from their private conduct.

“As a councillor, I can never take that hat off,” Black said. “So, for me to be held accountable for my actions in office and outside of this room, I think is important.”

Communication and social media

The new Code, which is similar to one adopted by Moncton City Council, warns members of council that their electronic communications through e-mail or the Internet can be retrieved and read under the Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

The Code prohibits councillors from using “text messaging, email, internet services or any other electronic communication device, if the use could be considered offensive, inappropriate, or otherwise contrary to this Code.”

The new Code also warns about the use of social media such as Facebook.

“As public figures and representatives of the Town, Members [of council] should act with discretion and be judicious in what material they post on social media,” the Code says.

“As with any other communication, Members are accountable for content and confidentiality. Care should be exercised in debates or comments on contentious matters, as feelings and emotions can become inflamed very quickly.”

To read the section of the bylaw governing communications and social media, click here.

Relations with town staff

Councillor Bruce Phinney

When the mayor called the vote on the new Code, only Councillor Bruce Phinney voted against it after objecting to provisions that prohibit elected officials from giving direction to town staff or involving “themselves in matters of administration, which fall within the jurisdiction of the Chief Administrative Officer.”

“The Code of Conduct that we’re putting in place, to me and this is my personal opinion, is to kind of keep everybody quiet,” Phinney said. “We already know exactly, we can’t tell the staff what to do, we can’t tell the CAO what to do, but we can bring to their attention our concerns.”

Councillors Michael Tower, Allison Butcher and Bill Evans responded that the new Code does not prevent elected officials from raising their concerns with staff, but does provide guidelines to prevent councillors from interfering in town administration.

To read the section of the bylaw governing conduct toward town staff, click here.

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