Why efforts to remove city councillors from office are picking up steam in 2 provinces
Ontario and Alberta models different, but both respond to demand for change
In most workplaces, a boss asking an employee if she would be willing to come to work without wearing a bra would be grounds for dismissal.
But not if you're an Ottawa city councillor.
By now, there's hardly anyone in Ottawa who hasn't heard about the complaints against Coun. Rick Chiarelli or the investigations into his conduct by the city's integrity commissioner, who found that he engaged in "incomprehensible acts of harassment."
Council agreed with the commissioner's recommendation to suspend Chiarelli's pay for 15 months — the harshest penalty allowed under provincial law — and his colleagues urged him to resign.
But Chiarelli didn't, and for the moment, there's no mechanism to remove him.
In fact, there are few ways in any province to oust an elected official — at any level of government — for bad behaviour.
More and more, though, the voting public is demanding that politicians be held to account between elections. And now, some provincial governments, including Ontario, are beginning to act.
Pressure on governments
In Ontario, two competing processes are underway.
Orléans Liberal MPP Stephen Blais has tabled a private members' bill that calls for the removal of a councillor in extreme circumstances through a judicial review. For its part, the Progressive Conservative government has also announced consultations on strengthening codes of conduct for councillors.
It's not just the Chiarelli situation that spurred action.
- Ottawa city council demands Chiarelli's immediate resignation
- Chiarelli should face harshest penalty, integrity commissioner says in 1st report
Gurpreet Dhillon, a city councillor in Brampton, Ont., was found by the integrity commissioner there to have sexually harassed a businesswoman on an official trip to Turkey.
Both Chiarelli and Dhillon deny the allegations and are challenging their city's integrity commissioners in court.
Meanwhile, in Alberta, another approach is being tried.
Premier Jason Kenney's government tabled recall legislation last week that would apply to provincial and municipal public office holders, even school board trustees.
Kenney was acting on a 2019 campaign promise that gained new life from, among other things, outrage over provincial politicians going on holiday during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the evident groundswell for accountability between elections, though, it's not clear any of the proposed moves will deliver as promised.
Alberta bill 'more of a popularity contest'
Take Alberta's recall bill. Under the legislation, a voter would have to apply for a recall petition to remove a councillor, then collect signatures from fully 40 per cent of the population in that councillor's ward, all within 60 days.
As well, the recall campaign would have to occur in the 18 months after an election, but not within six months of the next one. That would leave just half of any four-year term for a petition drive might be mounted.
- Proposed law could see Alberta voters petition governments for changes
- Opinion: Here's why Alberta's recall legislation is as mythical as Bigfoot
And any recall process — British Columbia has had a version since the mid-1990s, but not for municipal politicians — is vulnerable to criticism for being too open to political manipulation on one hand, but also too stringent to make removing a public official feasible on the other.
Yet John Mascarin, a municipal law expert and partner at the Toronto firm Aird Berlis who has worked with cities on conduct issues, says public sentiment has swung against just putting up with unacceptable behaviour by politicians until the next vote.
"I think the bad behaviour has been there for many, many years, but now people are starting to say we're just not going to accept it anymore," Mascarin told CBC.
But he doesn't necessarily agree with Alberta's recall proposal, saying it seems like "more of a popularity contest."
A politician whose behaviour was "atrocious," he said, might remain popular. Or one who takes a valid stance that upsets some constituents could face a recall petition.
"It's a little odd," Mascarin said, "to find that you can possibly remove someone from just not being popular."
Ontario open to change
Kenney's United Conservatives are likely to pass their recall legislation, as they hold a majority, but in Ontario things are less certain.
Private members' bills like Blais' are usually unsuccessful. And the governing Progressive Conservatives appear to want to go their own way: only days before Blais tabled his bill, the government quietly announced "consultations with the municipal sector to strengthen accountability for council members."
But there are signs the government is amenable to change.
The office of Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark told CBC that the government is open to changing the law. Clark has asked the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) — a powerful voice in municipal circles — to provide input.
Earlier this month, AMO's board called for stronger measures to "incentivize compliance" with councillor codes of conduct, which could include "removal from office by a member of the judiciary on the recommendation of an integrity commissioner."
The will of voters is obviously fundamental to our system and must always be respected and protected.- Stephen Blais
The bill Blais has proposed calls for exactly that. The MPP argues that a judge's final say, in a process that starts with a local integrity commissioner's investigation, is needed to avoid political interference.
"The will of voters," he told CBC, "is obviously fundamental to our system and must always be respected and protected."
Associate Minister of Children and Women's Issues Jill Dunlop, who will lead the provincial consultations, told CBC she looks forward to discussing Blais' bill with him "directly," but said she doesn't want to start out "with any preconceived notions or ideas."
Although the consultations might not get underway before fall, Dunlop recognizes there's a sense of urgency.
On the day they were announced, she said she had people contacting her constituency office, asking to be part of the consultations and seeking to share their own concerns and issues.
She expects at least some of the consultations to be held behind closed doors, given the sensitive details likely to be raised.
"It will be very personal information that may have happened to them or that they've even seen happening to others in the workplace," Dunlop said.
"We've also heard of situations of bullying, as well as sexual harassment. So these are all things that are important for us to listen to and to look at that as we make changes to the Municipal Act."
It adds up to a possibility that reforms to Ontario's law — while less certain to happen than Alberta's recall legislation — could end up being a more powerful tool when it comes to actually getting rid of councillors whose behaviour crosses the line.
As Mascarin notes, the mood for change extends well beyond specific cases like Chiarelli and Dhillon.
"[From] Black Lives Matter [to] the #MeToo movement, all of a sudden, you do not want to have this atrociously bad behaviour being propagated any longer," he said.
"You see the abuses over and over again by elected members. And so I think it's something that you've got a groundswell [for] now."