The decision to refer the matter of comments in a Guelph Mercury article to a lawyer retained by the City as our Integrity Commissioner, towards getting an independent assessment of what had transpired, to use it as a test case of… ah, what likely didn’t happen (?) but we’d like to know more about (?)… has if anything, significantly undermined the role of the Integrity Commissioner in Guelph.
As possible outcomes go, perhaps the Integrity Commissioner saw the risk of that. Two minutes into it. Perhaps. And perhaps that insight was in no small measure driving his review and report.
And perhaps Mayor Farbridge would now agree the whole exercise has caused significant damage to the credibility and value of the role. It seems the Mayor is attempting to shift the conversation from the public’s experience of the “test case” to a broader conversation around the value of the Integrity Commissioner, as per this recent comment in the Mayor’s Blog:
“In this case, the Integrity Commissioner’s report was about much more than a newspaper article. It was about strengthening Council’s working relationship with the administration and bringing clarity to our respective roles. This is fundamental work to improving service and delivering results to the community. Work that we are doing…
So, the matter of the test case — which we weren’t sure what it would tell us as we were voting for it in the first place — is not really what all of this was about? What kind of test case is that?!
Well, I agree this really isn’t about what it was supposed to be about. Or, sort of agree.
What this seems to be about is a crisis of leadership. At the top. In the first place, the request for the MOE documents (public documents prepared by the Province of Ontario about a public asset — ours) could have been handled better by staff. The direction, the corporate culture around that sort of thing comes from the top. The handling of it seemed to be unnecessarily territorial.
But it would also seem ahead of this misadventure that there was insufficient action on the part of the Mayor to address a growing discontent of among some council members for what it can be for them to get information from staff. It seems this is indeed less about a newspaper article and more about a series of breakdowns, in communication and trust that were inadequately addressed by the person whose role includes a responsibility for managing relations before things ever get to that point, on the Council side of it.
Then, into all of this we tossed in an “Integrity Commissioner”, an unelected authority to bridge the mistrust? Because we have reached a need to have someone who is more trusted, someone who appears to be more neutral? That’s going to fix everything, that’s leadership? Nope. Sorry. It doesn’t work well that way, if that’s what we were relying on, and more on that in a moment.
Talk about unrealistic expectations.
As a role, the Integrity Commissioner wields not-insignificant informal power over our elected officials. That in itself should be a red flag for those concerned about the authority of their elected representatives. Indeed, the very reference of a matter to the Integrity Commissioner against an elected official can be politically damaging. That can be intimidating — especially if you are politically the minority on Council and have with good reason stopped trusting your colleagues (good point, Steve).
Dealing with misconduct is messy business, no doubt. It is what it is. That kind of power should remain with elected officials, beginning with the Mayor, who must own the most transparent remedy regarding their effectiveness in managing “conduct”, that is, when they face the electorate. It seems as though we’re shifting political responsibility for conduct away from politicians. It’s otherwise known as hiding behind the hire.
What trust that might have been present around the horseshoe, between certain council members, and the Mayor, and staff, and towards the role of the Integrity Commissioner has now likely taken a turn for the worse as a result of this exercise. That there is a running joke of sorts now about the risks Councillors face in terms of incurring a (politically motivated) complaint to the Integrity Commissioner cuts to deeper mistrust about this whole process.
Which is the real issue here.
The Integrity Commissioner as a role has been compromised, politically. Consider it dead in Guelph. The reference killed it. It’s dead because while we adopted a governance measure that, to some, allowed us to look and behave like a maturing city it was used by Council to participate in small-town-style politics.
And it’s dead because, well, most importantly, the trust that is needed in our Mayor to make the role of Integrity Commissioner work is just not there. Not within Council. Not in the community. In Guelph, a mistrust in the Mayor cannot be patched over with a new hire. Add a failed “test case” and buy-in is lost.
I have to admit the following quote from Mayor Farbridge left me confused about what is appropriately public as fair comment and what otherwise leads to a complaint to the Integrity Commissioner. Read it. (For the full entry, please click on the quote.) Does it seem to you as though it’s a jab at someone, a group of people? A Council member? When I read it, I thought, “Oh-oh. I’m not sure THAT should be there…”
I hope I am mistaken about my read of it. Perhaps Mayor Farbridge should clarify whether or not the above comment is consistent with the Conduct of Conduct, and why. Remember, the Mayor’s Blog is on the City’s (taxpayer-funded) website and it includes the City’s logo.
(The Integrity Commissioner’s report to Guelph City Council, courtesy of Councillor Findlay’s The Deuce: Ward 2 Guelph blog.)