Edmonton

Gifts under $300 OK under draft code of conduct, Edmonton councillors hear

Edmonton city councillors are looking at a draft code of conduct which outlines rules for councillors accepting gifts, attending public events, expressing opinions, lobbying, absences and representing council.

Mayor says new code of conduct will ensure city council is more transparent

City councillors must report when they've received gifts amounting to $300 a year from one source. (City Market Downtown/Facebook)

Edmonton city councillors are pondering philosophical and practical questions on how they should behave as elected officials.

A draft code of conduct presented Monday outlines rules for councillors accepting gifts, attending public events, expressing opinions, lobbying, absences and representing council.

The code is about "establishing clear expectations," Mayor Don Iveson said.

The city is required to establish a code of conduct for councillors under revised provincial legislation. The Municipal Government Act requires that a code of conduct is in place by July.

"We're going to increase transparency of what I think is largely good practice here, but to raise a level of public confidence," Iveson said.

City staff are expected to clarify and tweak wording in the draft code of conduct and report back to the committee in May.

When to talk, what to say

The draft policy includes a clause that says councillors have to "respect the decisions of council as a whole" and to communicate these decisions "even if they disagree with these decisions." However, Iveson said councillors are free to speak their minds if they do it respectfully.

"Every one of us is going to have a microphone shoved in front of us after a controversial decision," he said. Councillors "should be free to offer an explanation for the position that they took," he added.

"Are we 13 independent or are we a council? And the answer is, we're both."

Coun. Bev Esslinger said she hopes the code of conduct will make the rules clear. "I don't think we have a common understanding," Esslinger said.

Attendance policy

Coun. Scott McKeen wants the language in the code to be clear: all councillors are expected to attend meetings, especially when council is asked to vote on a controversial issue. 

He mentioned West LRT as an example of a recent vote that drew public and media scrutiny. He said he has noticed several times in the past when councillors have skipped a vote. 

"I saw examples of times where councillors were not in council chambers participating in the debate and the vote," McKeen said.

He said under current city policy, councillors are supposed to attend meetings and vote on issues. He hopes the new code of conduct makes councillors more accountable.

"So what do you do if they don't? What do you do if they bolt, and aren't there for the decision?

"It's tough making some of these decisions," he said. "You lose sleep, you can have people go after you in the YMCA locker room while you're trying to go and do a workout, so you have those things happen, but that's what you sign up for."

Gifts and benefits

Under the draft code of conduct, councillors would have to disclose receipt of fees, gifts or personal benefits amounting to more than $300. They would also have to disclose when the total value of fees, gifts or personal benefits received from a single source in the calendar year exceeds $300.

Current city policy already requires councillors to disclose when they're getting more than $300 in gifts or other benefits. Councillors are covered for things like food, lodging, transportation and accommodation when they travel for government-related conferences and events.

Coun. Tim Cartmell questioned whether the $300 limit is reasonable, given a "certain expectation" that councillors attend events, such as a consulting engineers' luncheon or a chamber of commerce gala.

"There's an opportunity for networking and communications exchange," he said.

Cartmell said he wouldn't mind paying out of pocket. But he said that would create a problem, in that councillors who pay their own way may not be obliged to report their activity yet would still be perceived as representing the city. 
Coun. Scott McKeen says councillors who skip crucial votes should be accountable. (CBC)

McKeen said he thinks it's a responsibility for councillors to attend some events and engage with citizens, but he's chosen to miss some because the ticket price was above the acceptable limit.

He said he's been offered tickets to the Mad Hatters' ball, amounting to about $500, and felt he had to refuse.

About the Author

Natasha Riebe

Journalist

Natasha Riebe landed at CBC News in Edmonton after radio, TV and print journalism gigs in Halifax, Seoul, Yellowknife and on Vancouver Island. Please send tips in confidence to natasha.riebe@cbc.ca.