Calgary councillor code of conduct revisions proposed

The Calgary municipal building in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, March 18, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Calgary city councillors have about six weeks to review proposed changes to their code of conduct policy.

Changes put forward by the city’s integrity and ethics office included improvements to the complaint process, empowering the integrity commissioner to initiate investigations regardless of whether the complaint is anonymous or withdrawn, reinforcing a duty to cooperate with investigations, and addressing the undue influence of councillors on staff.

Integrity commissioner Ellen-Anne O’Donnell and ethics advisor Emily Laidlaw laid out the prospective changes.

Laidlaw said Calgary’s bylaw tried to “strike a balance, that kind of middle road” when it comes to the confidentiality or anonymity of complainants.

One prospective change allows the integrity commissioner to continue an investigation without the complainant or if the commissioner is aware of a matter that should be investigated but hasn’t had a complaint registered.

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Another proposal is to inform councillors when an investigation is underway.

“The amendments that we’ve made clarify that if the integrity commissioner believes there are reasonable grounds to believe a violation has occurred, then a notice of investigation is issued to the member of council and then a formal investigation is undertaken,” Laidlaw said.

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Other changes would clarify the process in areas like timelines for replies, confidentiality and maintenance of records and evidence, that any obstruction would be a presumed violation of the bylaw, and failure to cooperate with investigations would be noted in a report that goes to council.

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Once a councillor is found to have violated the code of conduct, the integrity commissioner can only recommend sanctions – council as a whole has the final say, but those are constrained by previous court decisions.

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Sanctions are supposed to be remedial, not punitive, connected to the violation, proportionate, and not interfere with the councillor’s ability to do their job.

“What we propose is to amend the bylaw to make clear that council may impose other sanctions or alternative sanctions to the ones that are on the list in the bylaw. And they have to be ones that council deems reasonable in the circumstances,” Laidlaw said.

Alternative sanctions could include limiting access to confidential information, removal of travel or hosting privileges, community service, a retraction, or even an increase in duties and workload.

Other suggested amendments include making Indigenous relations training and anti-racism training mandatory for all councillors at the beginning of their terms.

And the definition of “undue influence” would be broadened under the bylaw when it comes to council members.

“We want to make clear that if a member directly or even indirectly influences city employees or their staff to undertake behaviour that would otherwise be a breach of the bylaw, then that member would be investigated for this as a breach of the bylaw,” the ethics advisor said.

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After hearing the presentation at the executive committee on Wednesday morning, the councillors unanimously voted to withhold debate until the Jan. 31 committee meeting. Any decision from that meeting will be passed along to a later council meeting.

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“There’s been several members of the committee that have asked for more time for a review so that we can properly have a code of conduct in place,” Mayor Jyoti Gondek said.

Ward 11 Coun. Kourtney Penner said having clearer guidance in the code of conduct is an important step to improve consistency in resolving conduct issues and for improved transparency.

“Having something more formalized gives consistency year over year,” she said.

Calgary city council’s code of conduct bylaw was adopted in 2018 and had “relatively piecemeal” amendments in 2020 and 2021. A review of the code of conduct bylaw is required every five years, meaning a comprehensive review in 2023 would fit within the regulation.

In the past three years, there have been six instances where five different councillors were found to be in breach of the code of conduct.

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