Experts warn Sackville Town Council’s new Code of Conduct could shut down dissent

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 WarktimesMartin, 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.”

“Well, last time I looked, we’ve got freedom of expression in this country and that cannot be trumped by somebody saying ‘well, you hurt my feelings,'” O’Byrne said during a telephone interview.

“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.

Ombudsman

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.

During a telephone interview, Murray said there’s always a need to create clear distinctions between raucous and chaotic public outbursts and healthy, democratic debate.

“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.”

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4 Responses to Experts warn Sackville Town Council’s new Code of Conduct could shut down dissent

  1. Sharon Hicks says:

    As Professor Geoff Martin points out, while there are some good points about Sackville’s new Code of Conduct for Members of Council, the ultimate effect is to basically shut down any ‘real’ open discussion between our elected representatives who sit on Council.

    Professor Martin alluded to the fact that Councillors are elected by citizens, and they need to maintain autonomy – in other words they need to be able to speak up on behalf of the constituents who put their trust in them.

    He also points out that Councillors are not “town staff’, yet this Code of Conduct would seem to place than at that level, or actually below that level, as he points out that it places them under the “supervision of the council majority and the staff”.

    My understanding of how the dynamics of a municipal governing body functions has always been that the Mayor and Council are there to ‘direct’ staff to work on projects for the betterment of the Town, and that part of the Mayor’s role is to only relay the wishes of Council to the staff, via the Town Manager (called the chief Administrative Officer [CAO] here in Sackville).

    For those of us who follow local Town Council meetings and activities on a regular basis, what we see has become the total opposite, especially over the past four years under our current Mayor. How did this model become so completely turned around?

    The experts consulted for this article have made the point that the wording and intent of this new Code of Conduct sets up an ‘invitation’ for an ongoing litany of petty complaints, which would end up with councillors basically ‘fighting amongst themselves’.

    It could be seen as a convenient ‘tool’ with which to ‘divide and conquer’ Councillors, with the resulting in-fighting distracting their focus and attention away from more important issues, allowing free reign by the mayor and town management.

    Who would that benefit? Certainly not the Councillors. And certainly not the residents of Sackville.

    Like

  2. Norman Cole says:

    I think this comment is well thought out and maybe the other councillors might want to revist their thoughts as to why they were elected and what their mission should really be. There seems to not be enough Accountability as to the way decisions are made on some really important issues. You are all elected and expected to have the whole town’s best interest as top priority

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Shawn Mesheau says:

    **The following comment I am making is not the views of council.
    These are my personal views only.**

    I want to thank Mr. Wark for playing a very important role in our community of bringing information to the forefront so we can garner perspectives around many important issues our community is subject to.

    It was reassuring to see that some of the concerns raised in the article by these experts were in line with what I raised during council’s opportunity to deliberate the code of conduct as presented.

    I believe a code of conduct is important to ensure councillors and the Mayor conduct themselves professionally and respectfully.

    It was my hope that the code implemented by council would be a work in progress and amended as required based on what we learned from its existence.

    If it creates barriers for a councillor to be able to uphold the Local Governance Act which indicates a councillor must consider the welfare and interests of the entire community, the opportunity does exist to amend the code.

    Where the code is mandated by the Local Governance Act, I believe municipalities should be provided guidance from the Department of Local Government in producing an effective code in the spirit of good governance.

    In fact not all municipalities have the ability to afford legal advice in formulating a code of conduct, so why wouldn’t this department not strive to ensure each municipality utilizes a standard means to govern its elected officials’ conduct.

    We must not forget our purpose as elected officials or let policy determine who we are as an individual councillor.

    Bureaucracy/policy, although required to deliver services, can be cold and calculating and we forget that it takes the empathy of council and administrators to ensure it is developed in a manner that best represents democracy.

    Thank you
    Shawn Mesheau

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Percy Best says:

    This Code of Conduct was seemingly written to dictate the way our Councillors handle themselves, not only in their councillor duties, but as private citizens. It was loosely based on what Moncton has done.

    Why in the world would there not be a consistent code of conduct that would at least be Province wide, and preferably Canada wide. For example, do we use our own House Building Code here in Town? No, of course not. It is like Sackville management tried to rewrite the Holy Bible based on the wants and wishes of some of the individuals, and in particular the upper management of ‘our’ Town. It is a great, but very scary, control feature for those at the top.

    This erosion of the ability of our Town Council members to speak out on behalf of the citizens has got to stop! It seems there is less and less incentive for anyone to throw their name into the hat for a Town Council position come next election. No one likes to be muzzled especially when it comes to representing the best interests of our town citizens.

    And BTW, does any citizen have any idea what Mayor John Higham is talking about when he says that Councillor Phinney violated the Code of Conduct by releasing to the public information that he was not supposed to? Is this just a ploy to somehow silence the councillor who always speaks up on behalf of the citizens? Hang in there Bruce, we have your back!

    Liked by 1 person

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