An unusual measure taken by Oro-Medonte Township council has some residents claiming it’s an attempt to “muzzle” them.
Council recently passed a bylaw that created a “Code of Conduct for Members of the Public.” It essentially gives township staff and council members the right “to refuse to respond, or meet with individual(s) in the future resulting from breaching of the ‘Code of Conduct for Members of the Public,’” as stated in the motion that was passed unanimously.
Council members have stated it is meant as a way to address harassment and misinformation.
“Rubbish,” said township resident Paul Sanderson.
“It’s such a blatant attempt to muzzle and stifle and tell the population to be quiet,” he said. “I think (Mayor) Harry Hughes thinks we’re all still in a kindergarten class in his public school when he was principal and he’s sending us to detention.”
Coun. Cathy Keane introduced the motion. She declined to comment for this article.
Hughes said Keane brought the motion forward after she heard of the federal government’s plans to amend the Canada Labour Code as it relates to workplace harassment and violence.
It notes federal public servants and employees of the public service are covered under Part 2 of the code, which states, in part, employers must “take the prescribed steps to prevent and protect against violence in the workplace.”
Workplace violence includes harassment, and Hughes believes a “very small group” of residents have crossed that line in their communications with township council members and staff.
He said Sanderson’s claim that the move was intended to keep residents quiet is “the farthest thing from the truth.”
Coun. Tammy DeSousa, who seconded Keane’s motion, agreed.
“That’s his belief and it’s totally untrue,” she said.
She echoed Hughes’s statement that it’s “a very, very small group of people that are repeat offenders often.”
“They seem to think that we, as councillors and staff at the township, are not entitled to the same respect all Canadians are entitled to,” DeSousa said. “I’m almost embarrassed that we had to vote this in. It should be a given.”
Sanderson feels council is taking liberties when it comes to the definition of harassment. Demanding information after having emails ignored is “not harassment,” he said.
“In a democracy, people must be free to criticize and offer opinions. That’s being taken away,” he said. “If they’re so damn sensitive and insecure when people criticize them, they really need to think twice about being in public service.”
Sanderson took issue with the fact the new code of conduct was not on the agenda.
“Why wasn’t it on the agenda? Because they knew there would be pushback and they’re cowards,” he said.
Hughes noted the code of conduct pertaining to township council was on the agenda and that Keane brought forward the one relating to the public because it was more suitable as a “bylaw unto itself that paralleled” the township’s code of conduct.
DeSousa did not provide specific examples of communications with residents that she would consider to be harassment. When asked who has been on the receiving end of that type of behaviour, she said, “all of us on council have,” and staff even more so.
Hughes said staff and council members have received emails claiming there have been “cover-ups” and “improprieties” at the township. Asked if he felt that constituted harassment, he said, “I would say it does.”
Those who email staff or council members can still expect a response, the mayor said. Now, however, if it is determined the email breaches the code of conduct for members of the public, the clerk will reply and inform the sender.
Responding to individual emails was “eating up a lot of staff’s time and, frankly, taxpayers’ money,” Hughes said.
Sometimes, legal advice was sought before a reply was sent, and that cost the township.
Hughes said he’s not aware of other municipalities enacting a code of conduct for members of the public, but he added a few mayors have called him, asking for a copy of Oro-Medonte’s code.
“We are not alone as a municipality in this problem,” he said.
Sanderson isn’t the only one upset about the new code. He shared emails from a few other residents, including Holly Levinter, who wrote she “wondered how the mayor and Ms. Keane thought they could legislate manners and behaviour of the public they serve.”
“Perhaps if council itself behaved more respectfully and responsibly to their constituents the behaviour they receive in return would be more to their liking,” she wrote. “Does Ms. Keane really think we all should attend courses in manners? Does she really think we all need an education in how to show respect? Does she think we need sensitivity training to avoid giving offence to anyone? Who defines respectful? Who defines whether a word gives offence? Is it up to individuals to memorize a dictionary definition of these words or is it up to the very insecure individuals who take offence or feel demoralized at the least provocation?”
Sanderson said he and others who are opposed to the code will continue to speak out against what he calls the “public control measures act.”
“They think they’ll pass this bylaw and we’ll go away. They’re wrong,” he said.
The motion passed by council is as follows:
Whereas, the government of Canada has stated: “Every Canadian has the right to work in a healthy, respectful and safe environment”…“including the public service”…“free from harassment and violence of any kind”
Whereas the Township of Oro-Medonte is committed to providing a work environment in which all persons employed by the Township are treated with respect and dignity;
Now therefore Be it Resolved that
1. The Township of Oro-Medonte adopts a “Code of Conduct for Members of the Public” when communicating with Township Council and staff regarding matters related to the Township.
2. It is at the discretion of the Clerk, in consultation with the CAO, to determine what constitutes a breach in the “Code of Conduct for a Member of the Public” as defined herein:
a) Harassment, including disrespectful, intimidating, vexatious and/or defamatory actions, comments or conduct that is reasonably expected to cause offence to an employee or Member of Council of the Township of Oro-Medonte shall not be tolerated.
b) Harassment includes actions, comments or conduct from customers, clients, members of the general public, residents of Oro-Medonte and members of groups and Associations representing a subject or an issue.
c) Harassment includes actions, comments or conduct from an individual outlined in item 2) of this Motion by way of any form of electronic, written and verbal communication; including email, text, messaging and telephone correspondence; during any Township Committee or meetings of Council; and, in-person interactions (on or off Township property).
Should an offence occur, a clear statement will be provided to the member of public stating that such forms of harassment shall not be tolerated and may reference the “Code of Conduct for Members of the Public” as adopted. In addition, a copy of the “Code of Conduct for Members of the Public” may be provided to the individual or group. Employee(s) and/or Council member(s) for the Township of Oro-Medonte continue to exercise the right to refuse to respond, or meet with individual(s) in the future resulting from breaching of the “Code of Conduct for Members of the Public.”