The office of an integrity commissioner was an important addition to the citizen arsenal aimed at keeping municipal politics free and clean, but like Townes Vansant’s ‘Pancho and Lefty,’ in practice the process is being used for political gamesmanship or to settle old scores, to creating skin like iron and breath as hard as kerosene.
In the past, the parameters of conflicts of interests were largely relegated to those of direct pecuniary interest for the individual in office or their immediate family members. While that definition might have been too restrictive to properly capture perceived conflicts, the proverbial baby is being thrown out with the bathwater under the ever-stretching current boundaries.
The result has been huge hits to municipal coffers as integrity commissioners (usually lawyers) rack up an enormous number of billable hours chasing down frivolous accusations. The cost is far from small potatoes—running to hundreds of thousands of dollars for small municipalities such as Elliot Lake and Espanola in recent years, as well as the harassment of elected officials to the point where even the most tenuous of connections lead them to declare conflict.
This is particularly alarming given the small populations of rural municipalities, where those drawn to public service are often those same people who volunteer with numerous community groups and service organizations. This could easily lead to decisions being relegated to an ever-shrinking cadre of council members, or potentially to an even more alarming situation where no councillor would remain to cast their vote.
Pendulums sometimes swing too far and the anecdotal evidence of costs being incurred by councils across the province is that this may well be the case in this instance. An ancillary concern is that councils may turn increasingly to in-camera sessions by using dubious stretches of imagination in order to fit a controversial discussion into the parameters—this would be a situation that would be in no one’s best interests.
Hopefully the tsunami of integrity commissioner complaints a number of communities have seen in the past few years will ebb and common sense will prevail among those filing complaints. Unlike under the previous system, where costs for such complaints to the complainant were onerous due to having to initiate a court action which was too much of a damper on public engagement, the current system is too lenient on those who make frivolous or vexatious complaints.
The integrity pendulum needs to swing back, not completely, but the arc must be arrested at some point in the swing to create a more balanced approach. Certainly some responsibility must be taken by the public itself to not enter pointless and costly complaints for purposes other than ensuring public weal, but municipalities are well-advised to set in place processes where a complaint must first be addressed by the municipality before falling under the purview of the integrity commissioner.
We must all work together to ensure our government is clean and held accountable, but perhaps a common sense strainer could be applied first, so we don’t throw democracy out the window along with the sewage.