Mount Allison politics professor Geoff Martin says he has concerns about the restrictions Sackville’s new municipal Code of Conduct imposes on members of town council.
In an e-mail to Warktimes, Martin, who served as a Sackville town councillor from 1998 to 2004, writes that the Code of Conduct, passed in March, provides a “ready mechanism” to shut down dissent.
“First, the mayor and councillors are independently elected and they need to have autonomy,” Martin writes. “They are not the same as ’employees’ of the municipality.”
Martin adds that the new Code of Conduct puts elected representatives under the supervision of a majority of their fellow councillors as well as town staff.
He was referring to sections of the Code that prohibit members of council from sending text messages and e-mail or creating posts on social media such as Facebook that are considered “offensive,” “inappropriate,” or “disrespectful.”
“Intelligent people can…disagree on what is offensive or disrespectful. Skins can be so thin, that this invites a never-ending litany of complaints against anyone who raises their heads off the desk,” Martin writes.
“I can’t imagine being a dissenter under these rules because this is a ready mechanism to shut down the dissenter,” he adds.
“Intelligent people can disagree on what the best interest [of the community] is and disagreement should be encouraged, not discouraged.”
To read, Geoff Martin’s full critique of the new Code, click here.
Freedom of speech
Nicole O’Byrne, professor of law at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, says she’s concerned about a section of the Sackville Code that warns members of council to be careful about engaging in social media debates on contentious matters “as feelings and emotions can become inflamed very quickly.”
“We’re supposed to be encouraging full and frank, open dialogue and debate, and how can you do that if it says ‘care should be exercised in debates or comments on contentious matters as feelings and emotions can be inflamed’?” she asked.
“So, does that mean if you’re emotional about something or you’re causing someone else to be upset about something, that you actually can’t engage in that level of discourse?” she added. “We all know that city council things get heated, and they should because everybody really, really cares.”
O’Byrne also expressed concern about a section of the Code that calls on members of Sackville Town Council to “arrange their private affairs in a manner which promotes public confidence and will bear close public scrutiny.”
She said that reference to public scrutiny of private affairs places “a real chill” on participation in town politics.
“They wonder why more people don’t want to run for municipal politics,” she said.
“What kind of candidates are you going to have running for town council when the pay is so low, you’re told that there’s no difference between your public and private life, that you’re going to be subject to serious sanctions under a Code of Conduct even if you’re just expressing your own personal opinion. That’s a real deterrent.”
Both Professors O’Byrne and Martin acknowledged that there are positive aspects to the new Code of Conduct including the way it clarifies the respective roles of the mayor, council and town staff, but Martin writes that greater care must be taken not to “over-regulate” behaviour.
Charles Murray, who serves as New Brunswick’s Ombudsman, says it’s not his role to decide what’s proper to include in municipal Codes of Conduct although his office does provide oversight in matters relating to the right to information and protection of privacy.
“I always caution organizations to be realistic and thoughtful and know that you can’t legislate behaviour,” he added.
“Democracy is messy, politicians are going to disagree. That’s the normal cut-and-thrust of politics,” he says.
Murray suggests that Sackville should enlist the services of an independent person such as a retired philosophy professor to conduct investigations into complaints under the new Code.
“You don’t want to self-police,” he says.
When asked about a separate issue — the presence of surveillance cameras in the town hall foyer outside the council chambers — Murray said that “best practice” would be to post warning signs.
“Why not have a great big sign if public safety is your reason for having surveillance cameras?” Murray asked.
“It would be a way of maintaining public trust, honesty and transparency.”