Halifax regional council will vote by the end of May on whether to bring in an independent integrity commissioner to help enforce a code of ethics for councillors.
Council adopted the code of conduct in May 2009, but there was no guideline for implementation. During that time, council has continued to grapple with two main violations of the code — leaks to the news media and questions surrounding abuse of alcohol at public functions.
Coun. Linda Mosher said self-policing doesn't work.
"So, if we don't have any third-party integrity commissioner or somebody that we can go to, these issues just keep coming and coming, and all of council wears this, your worship," Mosher told council's administrative standing committee on Monday. "We owe it to the public. We're elected public officials. We have to treat people with dignity and respect and treat our taxpayers the same way."
In 2006, it was Mosher who tabled a motion with the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities to develop a code of conduct for municipal elected officials. The board of the group approved the code in 2008, and 40 of the province's 55 municipalities have since implemented it.
It's estimated that consulting an independent party several times a year would cost $5,000 to $10,000 annually. Mosher said council has lost thousands of dollars in legal fees already because of leaked information.
Richard Butts, the city's chief administrative officer, in his first day on the job, told the committee the role of an integrity commissioner wouldn't solely be to handle disputes but to offer advice as well.
"Perhaps the most important thing they do is act as a sounding board when issues come up," Butts said. "Councillors get asked to do all kinds of things — come to this event, go here — so you can prevent a lot of things by talking to an integrity commissioner."
Several councillors raised doubts about the code's effectiveness without sanctions.
The Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities is pursuing legislative changes to the Municipal Government Act so that sanctions for elected officials can be authorized. Potential consequences could include suspension from office and loss of privileges.
A motion before the committee to refer the code of conduct back to a sub-committee for review was voted down.
Coun. Brad Johns, who proposed the motion, said he supports hiring an independent third party but he doesn't want to sign the ethics code until city lawyers go through it step to step.
Of particular concern to Johns is a member's responsibility under the code to respect the decision-making process, even if a councillor disagrees with the decision.
"And I see this as nothing else but a potential gag order, where if a councillor says something or does something or tries to promote any democracy in this society whatsoever … that they'll be able to be shut down and sanctioned and fined and removed from office, and that's what I see happening here," Johns said.