British Columbia

Codes of conduct in local government are being used to quash dissent, critics say

Codes of conduct are increasingly being introduced in local government to foster respectful dialogue — but critics say they're giving councils the power of both judge and jury so they can exclude dissenting voices.

Codes are intended to foster respectful dialogue, but some say that power can be wielded inappropriately

The City of Maple Ridge has not said whether the removal of two councillors from committees was due to breaches of the council's code of conduct. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Is the City of Maple Ridge's code of conduct silencing councillors from commenting on local issues?

Don't expect anyone to talk about it.

Councillors Kiersten Duncan and Gordy Robson were recently removed from all committees shortly after council discussed potential new changes to the city's code of conduct, which governs the behaviour of councillors. 

Both Duncan and Robson, who vote against the majority on council much of the time, declined to speak about the reasons why they were punished, citing legal advice based on communication from the city.

"If there were actions being taken, which I wouldn't be allowed to talk about, I could not explain anything, nor could I comment on anything that may or may not have gone on," Robson said.

The city was asked Monday if any members of council had been affected by the code of conduct, but has yet to provide an answer.

The situation shows how codes of conduct, which are becoming increasingly common in local government, are giving councils the power of both judge and jury so they can exclude dissenting voices, critics say. 

"If I was allowed to comment, and if this was something that happened to me personally, I would have to say to you that it doesn't represent due process. And if a majority of council decided to punish you, the facts won't make much of a difference," Robson said.

'Double-edged sword'

Maple Ridge is one of more than 80 municipalities across B.C. that has created a code of conduct in recent years.

Both the Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM) and the provincial government have encouraged their adoption, seeing them as opportunities to legislate peaceful behaviour at the council table. They're also required in some provinces

"Local governments are grappling with difficult policy challenges. And what they want to see happen is … a culture of tolerance for different points of views," said UBCM president Laurey-Anne Roodenburg, a councillor in Quesnel. 

"And instead of shutting down people, they want to be able to have those kinds of conversations respectfully."

Municipalities can't remove councillors from office, but councillors can use codes of conduct to remove other councillors from committees and exclude them from some meetings. 

But councillors on the receiving end of those judgments argue that power can be wielded inappropriately. 

"A code of conduct is a double-edged sword," said qathet Regional District director Mark Gisborne, who is currently facing the threat of censure for allegedly violating the district's new code of conduct. 

Gisborne's potential breach of the code came during a zoning debate where, citing Wikipedia, he argued exclusionary zoning systems had been used throughout history for racial and class-based reasons. A board member said Gisborne had breached the code by implying there was racist intent in advocating for lower-density zoning.

The debate over whether he broke the code of conduct has lasted for three months, with Gisborne hiring a lawyer to advocate on his behalf.

"The problem with local governments writing their own code of conduct and enforcing their own code of conduct is then you have a political body that is in charge of not just setting the kind of rules, but then they're also acting as the judge and the jury," he said.

Call for provincial oversight

New Westminster Coun. Mary Trentadue has called for the province to create a municipal ombudsperson, arguing there's an inherent conflict in having councillors vote on what is and isn't respectful behaviour by their fellow councillors — particularly in municipalities with a split council and where there are periodic allegations of corruption or conflict of interest on all sides. 

"I don't think that a code of conduct is going to take care of some of the really much deeper issues that are occurring at councils and have been for years," she said.

"I think it's really important that we have a third party that you can go to and expect some kind of fairness."

Roodenburg acknowledged that codes of conduct were "a fairly new area for a lot of local governments," and it was too soon to say whether they were working or not. She also said municipalities should make every effort to ensure independent third parties are the ones making recommendations to councils. 

"When that particular piece isn't included in the code of conduct, you know, sometimes, unfortunately, it's used for evil," she said. 

The UBCM has passed a resolution asking the province to create an Independent Office of Integrity for Local Government to create oversight, and Roodenburg said she was hopeful the province would act on it. 

So, too, is Gisborne, who awaits judgment later this month on his alleged code of conduct breach.

"Local governments are children of the province," he said. "And when your children are misbehaving, sometimes you need mom and dad to step in."

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