At PartisanIssues, we work hard to focus on facts and not opinion, and we avoid municipal issues like the plague. However, a week ago it was brought to our attention that the City of Chestermere passed a “PUBLIC CONDUCT AND CIVIL DISCOURSE POLICY” which we feel is important enough to express some opinions and wade into the muddy waters of small town politics.
This short 8 page document (4 pages of notable content) is an easy read and we recommend that everyone skim it. We have a copy you can download HERE.
Before you get into this article, note that we sent a draft to the City of Chestermere and gave them a full day to respond but, perhaps not surprisingly given the topic, no comment or critique was received.
The new policy has been discussed with several former and current staff, former members of council, as well there were brief discussions with a couple of lawyers. We will now attempt to articulate the consensus views:
No-One Wants Abuse or Waste
All of the parties mentioned agree that it is important for all (private and public) employers and staff to be protected from slander, abuse and unnecessary costs. However, their are many effective laws and policies that have been in place for decades already to provide those required protections.
Big Problems With Chestermeres Conduct Policy
There are many issues with this policy but the two most glaring are illustrated in 4D and 4I:
4D – Multiple Lines of Communication
Should it be illegal to ask the same question of different town officials or staff? We think not.
“…pursuing a complaint or request with several departments of the City or contacting several members of Council, staff, or others, such as elected officials, the judiciary, the Federal or Provincial government or governmental agencies, ombudsman or law enforcement agencies, with the same issue
So attending a council meeting (as every citizen should from time to time) and asking a question which is then followed up by asking for a clarification from a department staffer or ombudsman or even your Federal Government MP, would be barred under this code.
Imagine yourself going to an ombudsman without even trying a few other avenues of inquiry first. How serious about the issue is she/he going to think you are? One wonders about what an ombudsman is supposed to do under this policy; they certainly won’t be busy helping citizens.
It is easy to imagine finding out that there was fraudulent activity at the city. Perhaps your son works there and he became aware of staff improperly using City vehicles overnight for side-gigs, or perhaps your grandmother told you she was being extorted by a town official. Should you not ask someone at the city before going to the police? The new policy makes it look like you have one avenue of discussion and no appeal so you had better get to the right person the first time.
If the issue is about bothering multiple city staffers, should it not be up to city administration to co-ordinate their communications, just like the private sector does? That is why communication management products like Salesforce and MS CRM are so popular. It is important to give customers or constituents the same information regardless of who is answering. It seems perfectly acceptable for the city to respond to persistent requests by stating that some person inside town hall has “…already answered that question, see response below” but rejecting questions altogether is highly suspect.
4I – Contacting Former Staff/Council
Should it be illegal to talk to former staff about a problem with current staff/council? Again, we think not.
“Contacting former City staff in an attempt to undermine current Council or staff;
This is interpreted as saying that just DISCUSSING how incompetent, non-responsive, or oblivious someone on council or staff may be, is now illegal. Really – are those not the heavy handed tactics of dictators in Russia and Venezuela?
Beyond that vague terms like “undermine” do not lend themselves to consistently enforcement. Such subjective words can be used as a shield by weak leaders or staff with something to hide.
Under that standard, simply talking to a former Director about a current Director, mayor or city staffer to gain context or even to verify what you perceive as incompetence, laziness, theft, fraud, abuse… would be barred.
I was under the impression we lived in Canada and that section 2B of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms protected such discussions. This item seems unlikely to stand up in court.
“Unreasonable Behavior” As Defined In The New Policy
Lets go through a few of lesser but still important issues with this ‘policy’:
4B – Trivial Changes of Complaints or Requests
No one likes to have someone nit-pick a problem but that is the nature of legal proceedings – sorry – it is a hair splitting business. Again, if a request has already been answered, we think it is quite acceptable for the city to respond with an “…asked and answered already”. To hide behind this new set of rules, which will inevitably happen, when a citizen attempts to clarify a fine point seems unnecessary and arbitrary.
4C – Incompatible Requests
Citizens are now barred from requesting the city make exceptions to current rules and regulations. But that isn’t that the entire point of Council and of leadership in general? By this logic women would still not be able to vote, because “well, that’s the law”.
4E – Complaining About a Final Decision
The problem with this line is who decides what is “complaining”? Later in the document there is mention of “…at the discretion of the department director” but the decision maker and the guidelines used to make the determination of “complaining” are still far from clear.
Complaints should be more than just allowed or tollerated; they are fundamental to democracy. They often form the drivers of future changes.
4G – Cannot Make Frequent FOIP Requests
FOIP is the Alberta Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIP) Act and again the lack of clarity on terms like “frequent” is likely to result in someone hiding their incompetence or illegal activity behind the new provisions.
If you are a citizen who knows “something is wrong” or a journalist who is making multiple requests, often serially (i.e. make 3 requests, receive, read, and make new requests to dig into some item turned up from the first requests) this rule could arbitrarily stop your investigation.
While we have not dug into this matter in detail, it is our understanding that FOIP is managed under Provincial rules that can not be superseded by a lower government, in this case the city, meaning that the city is unable to add restrictions to FOIP requests, meaning this is unlikely to stand up in court… but it will cost the taxpayers plenty of money to defend.
4L – Cannot Discuss Unpleasant Questions on Social Media
Social Media may be messy and unruly, but is it not a reasonable (and common) place to discuss concerns about a council, staff, services, or contracted companies? Under this rule, it appears that citizens are barred from airing concerns or gathering information from others via social media.
Remember that there are many existing laws protecting politicians and staff from liable and slander. Social media COMPANIES are protected from what is written on their platforms, but the users are most certainly fully exposed to those laws.
Again this appears to be in breach of section 2B of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms and seems unlikely to stand up to a court challenge.
It is important to note that the author:
- has been involved in ALL levels of government starting with Kim Campbell in 1992
- has had notable personal experience with receiving very annoying, very misled, very nasty requests and demands from citizens
- has made several Freedom of Information Act (FOIP) requests in 2020 and received nothing but respectful, timely responses from Chestermere’s fine FOIP liaison.
- knows and likes several members of Chestermere council and nearly everyone on staff at Chestermere that I have worked with over my last 25 years living in this city
The point being, that I understand how frustrating being an elected official or public facing staff member can be. They are not infrequently required to defend against baseless accusations from ill-informed (but usually well meaning) citizens.
It has been my experience local councils are deserving of our respect and appreciation. I rarely have anything but genuine sympathy for front line officials, politicians, and directors. Unfortunately for the good people at city hall on the receiving end, responding with facts is a REQUIREMENT of the job which keeps our democracy and taxes safe.
The new code of conduct is likely to backfire causing:
- council, staff, mayor, CAO and others that work with the public to eventually attempt to hide unpleasant facts by invoking this policy
- If you were caught in something scandalous, I am sure you would hide behind it!
- costly legal battle(s) needlessly affecting tax payers
Do not councils, CAOs, mayors and front line staff have a duty to be accountable and responsive to citizens?
Transparency International Reports Canada as being in a group of the least corrupt nations on earth and the publics ability to ask difficult questions, in multiple ways, to multiple people, is absolutely key to keeping that way.
What are your options under these rules if your requests are blocked by a racist staffer?
If a thin skinned CAO or seriously underperforming mayor, want to duck and hide, is it not your obligation as a citizen to bring that to light and is it then not the city’s obligation to then respond in a timely, thoughtful manor?
If you don’t want to be answerable to the public, don’t work in city hall and don’t run for an elected office.