How much scrutiny can our local politicians take?
And how much should they have to bear?
Or does it come with the territory when one runs for political office or accepts appointment to a local board?
Those are fair questions given the events of recent weeks, some genuine, others not so much.
Reprimands, letters of apology, derogatory comments, vexatious whining, resignation instructions, racist remarks, training instruction, sexual harassment in the workplace; they are just a few of the words and phrases Barrie residents have heard far too frequently of late.
So let’s start with comments by Suzanne Craig, Barrie’s integrity commissioner, who has found herself at the centre of these storms.
“Maybe what we need to look at is greater training, preparing people before they run for office,” she said. “Know ahead of time you will be held accountable, and if you are held accountable, there will be repercussions.”
Craig said this just after former Barrie mayor (2003-2006) Rob Hamilton resigned as chairman of the Downtown Barrie BIA board. City council decided he should be reprimanded for a derogatory remark toward Black people and offensive comments about the homeless, made at a BIA meeting last September.
This was said after Coun. Sergio Morales asked if Craig’s office was being “hijacked” by purely political, frivolous or even vexatious complaints with little or no actual merit.
“There’s not a doubt in my mind anymore,” Morales said. “The office of the integrity commissioner is being hijacked by specific people who want to bring damage to people they disagree with politically. I’ve seen a pattern of gotcha moments that are being brought to the integrity commissioner’s office that are not being brought with the intent to hold people accountable, but necessarily they’re being targeted.”
Which was not that long after Morales himself was reprimanded and apologized for remarks he made about Coun. Keenan Aylwin last summer.
Aylwin, of course, was reprimanded by council about a controversial Facebook post he made in March 2019. And Craig later cleared Aylwin of a conflict of interest charge on another matter.
So this is showing no signs of stopping.
Morales went to great pains at the May 3 general committee to explain that he was not — in any way, shape or form — blaming just international Georgian College students for the housing problems related to absentee landlords in the east end. The Ward 9 councillor sounded like he could almost hear the paperwork rustling in the integrity commissioner’s office.
At the same meeting and on the same topic, Coun. Jim Harris went to nearly the same lengths to explain that absentee landlords should not all be painted with the same brush, presumably black, even though he had not suggested that. Just the ones who didn’t look after their properties, was his point.
Morales seemed to be protecting himself, Harris the greater council good, but the spirit was the same.
Say whatever it takes now to deflect trouble from occurring later. Don’t hesitate to apologize, even if you really don’t need to say sorry.
Because who knows who’s watching, listening, recording every word and gesture during these meetings, then going through it click by click?
The integrity commissioner’s email is right there on the city website, too.
And then there was the great stop-sign saga at the April 19 meeting when Coun. Clare Riepma said he’d prefer his traffic information from city staff, not necessarily Coun. Robert Thomson, about safety at the corner of Sproule and Miller drives.
“I think it’s not a good idea to have the councillors become traffic engineers in place of the city staff who give some serious thought to these things,” Riepma said.
“I take offence,” Thomson said. “I’ve done my homework and I don’t think that should be thrown in my face.”
Riepma apologized and said he meant no offence to Thomson.
The minutes of the meeting say that Thomson considered his integrity had been challenged by remarks made during the discussion of the motion and that Mayor Jeff Lehman asked that any further remarks be stated succinctly, and not be used as a means of making statements or assertions.
Oh, and changes were made to the council and committee member Code of Conduct, and the council-staff relations policy, along with other actions taken by the city resulting from a workplace harassment investigation last year involving a Barrie councillor and city staff member. That was concluded by a still officially secret settlement agreement, which consumed hours and hours of councillors' time, and likely considerable money.
At the centre of all this is really not the integrity commissioner but the Code of Conduct, which is an agreed-upon understanding by all members of council — and its associated boards — about which standards should be met in the individual conduct of their official duties.
Yes, it could and probably should be renamed the Journal of Political Common Sense, but you know how bureaucrats and political types like their official-sounding titles.
What does all of this mean? Probably that this group of city councillors is spending far too much time sniping at each other, being offended by the slightest slight, and wondering how to even the score. The evidence is above.
Is that really why they were elected? No, not at all.
A little more governing, a little less thin skin.
Bob Bruton is a BarrieToday staff reporter covering city hall.