Thursday, January 13, 2011

Rewind, Be Kind

In the spirit of the season last month, Mayor Karen Farbridge laid a smack down on Ward 1 Councillor Bob Bell in one of the first meetings of the new term. It began with Bell who wanted council to reopen the subject of the new transit hub downtown to debate a potential redesign before construction recommenced in the spring. When confronted by a staff report that said reopening the hub’s design was a bad idea on numerous levels, Bell now famously, said to Guelph Mercury reporter Greg Layton that, “I stopped believing everything that was written in staff reports years ago.”

Flash forward to a couple of days later at the meeting, where right from the top, Mayor Farbridge laid down the law: Bell’s comment violated council’s values and the Code of Couct, which is signed by all councillors, by saying things that could “injure the reputation” of staff. “If there are any comments this evening that cross over that line I will censure you,” she added.

Bell apologized and said it was all cool. He didn’t mean to offend anyone, he was just saying that “there are times when the information is not accurate or is misleading…” No big deal, really. To which Farbridge said, no, really, do you want to be censured? Because I’ll do it right here in front of everybody.

Aside from fun with illation, the affair did yield an opportunity to take a new look at that Code of Conduct. Certainly Farbridge saw it that way when on a recent blog post at she talked about professional disagreements between council and staff. The Mayor pointed to a specific section of the Code of Conduct, which was developed last term by a citizens’ committee. In it, this clause says council can approve budgets, policy and committee processes, but be mindful that staff doesn’t work for them, but for the City of Guelph as a corporate entity.

“Members shall be respectful of the fact that staff work for the City as a body corporate and are charged with making recommendations that reflect their professional expertise and corporate perspective,” it continues. “Accordingly, no member shall maliciously or falsely injure the professional or ethical reputation, or the prospects or practices of staff, and all members shall show respect for the professional capacities of the staff of the City”.

So basically, saying that you “stopped believing” staff reports because they’re “not accurate or is misleading” and doing so in the public sphere of the local newspaper or the live broadcast from the floor of city council, is a C-of-C no-no. Does this mean that council can’t have disagreements about staff as per a particular recommendation or policy brief? Farbridge gave an emphatic ‘No’ in her blog post adding that it is a councillor’s responsibility to question staff reports, but that they should be able do so while not violating the “integrity or professional competence of staff.”

In the recent election there was a lot of discussion from the various challengers that there was “too much agreement” between council and staff last term, or that council would “rubber stamp” any and all of staff’s recommendations just because they came from staff. Bell has always been outspoken, and I hate to imply conspiratorial motives, but such a blatant and openly on-the-record rebuke of staff seems almost a response by a veteran city councillor to those complaints.

But the mistaking of civility for collusion is an all too frequent meme in the modern age of politics. Any person that doesn’t see eye-to-eye with you, no matter the issue, is your political enemy. Even if you should happen to agree on other issues, they’re still your enemy. There is no room for compromise because compromise is weak. I’ve started to think that that this might account for lower voter turnout at all levels. People expect that their point-of-view with a given candidate should line up 100 per cent, but if you can only agree with someone on nine out of ten issues, then how can you in good conscience vote for them?

I suppose as New Year’s Resolutions go, no longer insinuating professional misconduct of city staff in local media is as good as any other. In the tumultuous debates to come, let us keep in mind that most politicians and civil servants are good, honest, hard working people doing their best despite obstructions and limitations that can be physical, legal or jurisdictional. No matter what their position on an issue, most people are working for, it what their opinion is, the best interest of the City of Guelph. Or as Abraham Lincoln once said, “If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.” But what does that guy know?

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