Inquiries from the public about how the city’s Code of Conduct is applied were a significant part of what kept Barrie’s integrity commissioner busy the last two years.
While delivering her recent 2019-2020 report to city council, Suzanne Craig was asked about the 35 public inquiries in 2019 and the 20 public inquiries in 2020.
“In 2019, most of those public inquiries related to social media use, some of them related to the Code of Conduct,” she told council. “I did receive a significant number of inquiries from the public as it related to what is the opportunity of a member of council to be able to speak their truth and their opinions outside of a council meeting.
“There were inquiries to why the Code operates to prevent members of council from speaking, and I had to clarify that it wasn’t that the Code prevents the member of council from speaking, but it prevents a member of council insulting and in other ways denigrating either the decision of council or an individual," Craig added.
Barrie’s Code of Conduct is an agreed-upon understanding about what standards members of city council, committees and boards should meet in the individual conduct of their official duties.
“The public have been much more active, councillors as well, on these issues that have come up when it comes to the use of social media and language,” said Mayor Jeff Lehman.
In all, Craig fielded 123 inquiries in 2019 and 90 in 2020 from not only the public, but council members and city staff.
The integrity commissioner must also deal with formal complaints relating to the Code and the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act.
Last year, there were six formal complaints resulting in two full investigations by Craig with the complaints sustained, one settlement and three dismissals. In 2019, there were 20 formal complaints — four full investigations with complaints sustained, four settlements and 12 complaints dismissed.
“It was quite astounding to see how busy the integrity commissioner was in 2019, as I had no idea there were that many complaints,” said Coun. Gary Harvey. “I know we did have some, but not to that level.”
Craig said she believes ongoing training is important for councillors, committee and board members for the use of social media and issues such as equity and harassment.
“The events that present themselves to us currently in the world face the city of Barrie and all governments,” she said. “It’s a difficult and painful discussion.”
Craig also stressed the importance of the Ontario government’s consultations with the municipal sector to strengthen accountability for council members; the province says it wants to ensure that councillors and heads of council maintain a safe and respectful workplace, and carry out their duties as elected officials in an ethical and responsible manner.
As the regulations now stand, the final decision on such matters is in the hands of the municipal council. The Ontario Municipal Act states that if the integrity commissioner determines a councillor has contravened the municipality’s code of conduct, the council can impose a penalty — either a reprimand or forfeiting as much as 90 days’ pay.
“You know, it’s not often that the province asks for input. It’s not often that you can make your voice heard,” Craig said. “The consultation relates to allowing an integrity commissioner to have powers that may, in egregious circumstances, give her the power to recommend to a court or to council the unseating of a member of council.
“This is significant. It is an insertion into the democratic process,” she added. “Some councils feel it is necessary, others feel absolutely not.”
The consultation process will be concluded on July 15, with comments by the province this fall.
“Those pieces of legislation are rarely amended and even more rare is any opportunity for anybody to comment,” Lehman said.
Craig’s report did not include two high-profile Code of Conduct decisions she made this year.
Coun. Sergio Morales apologized to Coun. Keenan Aylwin for offensive comments he made to the Ward 2 councillor last summer — after being reprimanded by city council, following Craig’s recommendation.
Council also accepted Craig’s report that Rob Hamilton should be reprimanded and removed as Barrie Downtown BIA chairman — just hours after Hamilton resigned as BIA chairman and from the board itself. Craig’s report said Hamilton, a former Barrie mayor from 2003 to 2006, made a “derogatory term toward Black people” and offensive comments about the homeless, at a BIA meeting last September.
Lehman said Craig has a difficult job, but has done it well.
“At the heart of it is judgment, judgment as to compliance or not with the Code that cannot itself imagine all circumstances,” he said. “Notwithstanding we were probably an easier client a few years ago than we have been in the last few years.”
The number of formal and informal complaint investigations, and the city office closures due to COVID-19, "significantly impeded the timely reporting obligations" of the integrity commissioner's office, says the report, which covered two years.