Council implored to avoid non-pecuniary conflicts of interest

(Gazette file photo)



A local resident, Paul Allen, spoke to council during their meeting on November 23rd, bringing forward the issue of council’s code of conduct in relation to non-pecuniary interests. As Allen pointed out, several municipalities across Ontario have codes of conduct that prohibit non-pecuniary conflicts of interest and the county following suit would help to build the public’s trust in elected officials.

Council having non-pecuniary interest, being those that are personal but not financial or monetary, could erode the public’s trust in their decision making.

Repeating the adage, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” Allen began his deputation imploring council to, as he put it, take one small step to overcome this cynical view as it might apply to local politics.

“Unequal and inconsistent codes of conduct can erode public confidence in local government and undermine the belief that council members can be held accountable outside the electoral process,” stated Allen. “Since 2016, the Ombudsman of Ontario has handled more than 14,000 complaints about municipalities. From his unique vantage point, the ombudsman is now proposing three measures in support of a provincial plan to hold municipal council accountable for violating their municipal codes of conduct.”

The measures, as noted by Allen and proposed by the ombudsman would be to standardize and expand requirements for municipal codes of conduct, followed by mandating and standardizing protocols for integrity commissioners, and finally, mandating accreditation and training for integrity commissioners.

“I should advise that the county’s integrity commissioner disagreed with including nonpecuniary conflicts of interest when he wrote me a year ago. The county is undergoing lots of change and faces many challenges,” Allen noted. “At times like these, especially, the public should be able to trust that council is balancing different and competing public interests fairly and judiciously. Some have major financial implications like how the county permits housing developments, licenses for short term accommodations or markets tourist attractions.”

Still other decisions have less tangible effects, such as pursuing truth and reconciliation or opposing racism.

“Why leave extra room for doubt about the decision-making process? There’s no silver bullet for local government to regain public confidence,” he said.

Several councillors commented on Allen’s deputation.

Brad Nieman. (Jason Parks/Gazette Staff)

Councillor Brad Nieman inquired as to whether there was a particular reason this issue was coming forward.

“I conduct myself well and-it seems to me-everybody conducts themselves professionally,” stated Nieman. “I’m just wondering why this is coming forward.”

“I have an interest in promoting fair and open government,” replied Allen. “While council member’s financial interests should exclude them from participating in decisions that come before municipal government, I think there are other interests council may have that are non financial in their nature that should also be declared.”

Councillor Kate MacNaughton suggested an amendment that would request the issue go to staff.

Councillor St. Jean suggested the term “non-pecuniary interests” is very broad and council should proceed cautiously given that.

“What are you hoping to see as a net result here? Before you answer, I’d like to say that non-pecuniary interests are very broad and its my feeling you have to be very careful what that line in the sand will be. It could be extended to each and every one of us in this room, for example Councillor John Hirsch’s relationship with the South Shore Joint Initiative (SSJI) or my own with the service club. Anything that comes up with a motion of diversity, you’d have to step aside.”

MacNaughton commented that while some municipalities have implemented a non-pecuniary conflict of interest policy as part of the integrity commissioner’s prevue, still others have implemented this as a matter of conscience.

Councillor Janice Maynard stated a firm definition of non-pecuniary interest was needed before moving forward.

“We need a firm definition for nonpecuniary interests and examples, as per the dictionary it includes all manner of issues and I would say that caring for and investment in our community is why we’re here,” she suggested. “It would be virtually impossible to divest yourself of those conversations at all times. I agree we may need some work here but before I could support this, I want a definition and some guidance.”

Councillor Bill Roberts, like several others, spoke to the unintended consequences that could arise from exploring this issue further.

“If this goes forward I hope there is consideration given to unintended consequences and I ‘m especially concerned about selectively weaponizing non-pecuniary matters for ideological reasons which would actually have the opposite effect and reduce diversity and cause more division.”

Ultimately, Councillor MacNaughton’s amendment failed 5-7 in a recorded vote.