Central Manitoulin rule-breaking motion rooted in cultivated culture of secrecy

Mindemoya Old school

by Perry Anglin

In a locally unprecedented motion last week, Councillors Derek Stephens and Steven Shaffer called on Central Manitoulin Mayor Richard Stephens to resign, saying he had broken council rules, which is highly questionable. More serious, their motion was rooted in an undemocratic culture of council secrecy that the mayor has cultivated.

The motion was prompted by Mayor Stephens telling The Expositor that there was “absolutely no question” of his wanting to save Mindemoya’s Old School from demolition, adding that “I see no reason to proceed with this when the building could stand for years without an issue, provided it gets a new roof.”

But Mayor Stephens was pessimistic in also saying that proposed use of the building by the Weengushk Film Institute “probably won’t fly because of the building being under the hammer for demolition.”

Councillor Stephens maintains it was understood by council that only the mayor could speak for it and that no one on council should speak publicly against any decision it takes.

Any such gag rule, whether written or informal, wrongly applies a doctrine of collective responsibility to a local council that is accountable only to its electorate. Even though the mayor must implement council decisions he must be free to publicly disagree with them. Whether he is wise to do so may depend on the circumstances. (Collective responsibility applies to a cabinet, which is responsible to the body that can turf it out, which in Ottawa is the House of Commons. Authorities [such as MacGregor Dawson] have agreed that to make this work a minister must resign if he wants to dissent publicly from an important Cabinet decision.)

Mr. Shaffer explained his position somewhat differently: “Mr. Mayor, you did a disservice to this council, you violated its rules and openly condemned council decisions. Not only did you publicly condemn a council decision, you actively participated in undermining it. Your role in fanning the flames of discontent cannot and should not be overlooked.”

He was referring to council’s rules of procedure and perhaps its code of conduct.

There is a compelling argument that Mayor Stephens wasn’t bound by either of them.

Council’s procedural bylaw of 2008 included a long standing requirement that the mayor is required “to represent and support the council, declaring its will and implicitly obeying its decisions in all things.” That means that as the township’s chief executive officer the mayor must implement the council’s decisions. Any amendment to the procedures saying that he and other council members must respect and support the decisions of council could not limit their constitutional Charter right to freedom of expression. It would be nonsense and defy human nature to expect them to tell voters they support a decision with which they disagreed. That’s not how democracy works.

Council’s code of conduct dating back to 2008 doesn’t apply unless it also has been amended unconstitutionally.

The Expositor’s Friday Newsletter characterized council’s discussion as a “lively debate censuring the mayor for not following the will of council.”

The ensuing motion calling for his resignation was withdrawn. Councillors have since expressed misgivings and uncertainty over whether the mayor would resign and what would happen if he did.

Mayor Stephens and the motion for him to resign broke with a culture of council collegiality that Mayor Stephens has inculcated at the expense of open government. In common language, go along to get along. And it’s rude to disagree with our decisions out loud.

Most decisions are taken in committees attended by a plurality of council members and rubber stamped at council meetings. Because that council doesn’t need to meet every week.

Because the media lack resources to cover the committee meetings of the many local councils, the effect is that most of council’s decisions are taken in private. Recorded votes when councillors want to disagree on the record are very rare.

Delegations to council are sidelined to the committees that media rarely cover. Council’s established practice is never to debate and deal with their presentations there on the spot. So councillors don’t have to face the presenters when they disagree with them. Nor even comment and formally refer the matter to staff for more information.

All this means that the public is less informed about what is going on, and perhaps want to call their councillors (whose home phone numbers are hard to get).

Life was less comfortable for council members in the days when my father and I led councils. And community discussion was better informed.

For example, some of the public opinion in favour of demolishing the Old School is because people don’t know that it would cost very little to preserve it even if it stood vacant for years before being rented out or sold. Should Mayor Stephens be shut up for saying so? All the building needs is a new roof. Council has turned down a donation for that.

The property committee last week showed no interest in an able presentation by Jim Smith with financial details showing that it would even be cheaper to preserve the Old School than to demolish it. The committee neither commented on that financial case nor sent it to staff for examination.

At its meeting two days later council took no note of the presentations to its property committee.

It concentrated instead on censuring the mayor for breaking the disturbingly undemocratic culture of silence which he himself brought about.

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Perry Anglin was the founding reeve of Central Manitoulin township. As a reporter and commentator he covered municipal councils in Toronto as well as the Ontario Legislature and Parliament. As a senior civil servant he advised the prime minster and many cabinet ministers. Later, he advised major corporations as a business consultant, using university business school training and experience of being in charge of the government’s interpretation of the Income Tax Act.