Astonishing as it may seem, York Regional Council does not have a Code of Conduct regulating the behaviour of its members.
And because there is no Code of Conduct there is no need for a Regional Integrity Commissioner.
In its response last October to the Province’s review of municipal legislation, York Regional Council told the Government “the requirement for a code of conduct and an Integrity Commissioner (should) remain discretionary”.
The Scandal of Michael Di Biase
This jaw-dropping decision was taken after the scandal of Michael Di Biase – the Regional Councillor whose municipal salary was forfeited for three months by his home council of Vaughan because he had inappropriately interfered with the Council’s tendering process.
We shall know in March 2016 if Di Biase claimed his York Region salary throughout the period when he was not being paid by Vaughan. But with no Code of Conduct in place at York Region we must assume he was being paid, no questions asked. (On the other hand, he could have volunteered to forego three month’s salary from the Region ($13,255) as a sign of his contrition. We shall see soon enough.)
In any event, did York Region staff raise the issue at all with members? Did they wonder aloud if it was appropriate to pay an elected official in these circumstances? Was it even a matter for discussion? Or did everyone simply look the other way, not wishing to cause any unpleasantness?
No Code of Conduct needed
So, despite knowing all about Di Biase, regional council members, including Newmarket’s Tony Van Bynen and John Taylor, decided at their October 2015 Council meeting that a York Region Code of Conduct wasn’t needed. They said it would largely replicate what was already in place at municipal level and produce unwelcome ambiguity.
“Regional Council members are elected in their constituent local municipalities. Seven out of nine local municipalities have Council Codes of Conduct. As a result, 18 of the 20 elected members of Regional Council are subject to a Code of Conduct. To introduce another municipal Code of Conduct would be redundant and, potentially introduce ambiguity. The seven Codes of Conduct that are in effect vary substantially. It might be helpful for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing to provide a guideline or template stipulating minimum requirements.”
They went on to rubber stamp a staff report recommending that the procedures designed to promote accountability and transparency should be permissive and not mandatory and should be implemented at the discretion of individual municipalities.
As an aside it is worth remembering that the Chair of York Region, Wayne Emmerson, is indirectly elected by members of the Regional Council and not directly by the voters. He is therefore not covered by any Code of Conduct applying to his "home municipality" as he doesn't have one.
Time for an Ombudsman?
Quite separately, in another part of the forest, the then Provincial Ombudsman, Andre Marin, told a Committee of MPPs in December 2014 when it was taking evidence on Bill 8 which extends the remit of the Provincial Ombudsman (The Public Sector & MPP Accountability and Transparency Act, 2014):
“There is no will at the municipal level to be accountable. What this legislation brings is that accountability.”
The amendments to the Ombudsman Act come into force today (1 January 2016), extending the Provincial Ombudsman’s remit to municipalities. But municipalities will still be able to appoint their own Ombudsman if they so wish. Those who choose not to appoint their own will by policed, in default, by the Provincial Ombudsman.
Last month,York Regional Council decided to appoint ADR Chambers Inc as the Ombudsman to the Region. Municipalities within the Region are being invited to piggy back, using the same Ombudsman if they so wish.
Newmarket will shortly be considering whether or not to appoint its own Ombudsman or go with the Region (see Information Report 14 December 2015 here). And its Code of Conduct will come up for discussion on 18 January.
Our councillors should take this opportunity to press the Region to bring in its own Code of Conduct and appoint a Regional Integrity Commissioner.
It is perfectly obvious both are needed.