Proposed changes to council code of conduct bylaw raise concerns about public transparency

Edmonton city council wants further dicussion about proposed changes to the council code of conduct bylaw.  (David Bajer/CBC - image credit)
Edmonton city council wants further dicussion about proposed changes to the council code of conduct bylaw. (David Bajer/CBC - image credit)

Proposed changes to the code of conduct bylaw that governs Edmonton city councillors have been paused over concerns that the new measures posed transparency issues that could erode public trust.

Councillors on Wednesday requested city administration to take another look at proposed changes to the bylaw, which had initially been part of a report presented to council on June 11.

That report recommended the city cease publishing reports about councillor violations of the code. As well, the sanction hearings to discuss the reports would be conducted in private, with council having the option to vote to make it public.

Ward Anirniq Coun. Erin Rutherford said the optics of the changes weren't good.

"This is meant to be an accountability mechanism for city councillors," she told CBC's Edmonton AM on Wednesday.

"If there's any perception even of burying the truth, I think the public's going to have a big problem with that."

She acknowledged there is sometimes a need for councillors to discuss matters in private — for instance, if the complainant is a city employee — but she said those protections are already in place through the freedom of information legislation.

"I'm just not seeing the need to further muddy that water," Rutherford said.

Investigating concerns about misconduct

The Council Code of Conduct was established in 2018 to help guide the ethical conduct of the city's elected officials. It includes a mechanism for individuals to file a complaint to the city's integrity commissioner if they believe a councillor has contravened the code.

Once the integrity commissioner accepts a complaint, an investigation is conducted.

The issue may be resolved informally. But if the complaint is found to have merit, it will be presented to city councillors at a sanction meeting, where consequences are decided.

Currently, the commissioner's reports are published on the city website when a violation has been found.

Under the proposed new rules, that publication would no longer automatically happen.

As well, complainants and councillors would no longer be able to discuss a complaint publicly during an ongoing investigation. This measure aims to limit breaches of confidentiality during the investigation that may lead to the complaint being deemed "frivolous, vexatious or made in bad faith" and potentially resulting in it being dismissed.

In the June 11 report, city administration said the changes were meant to "provide additional procedural clarity to increase transparency."

At the June meeting, Coun. Michael Janz argued that if a complaint is leaked to the media, a councillor would not be able to defend themselves, since they are no longer allowed to discuss it in public.

"It essentially traps you," he said. "The councillor can't say anything. They can't talk about it all."

Cameron Ashmore, lawyer for the city, said the intent was to prevent such leaks, comparing it to a lawsuit.

"It's actually in the best interest of everybody to be able to say to the media that this is not something we want to discuss in the media, it's in the hands of the integrity commissioner," he said.

Other councillors, including Rutherford, also voiced concerns that council members could attempt to sabotage the process by anonymously leaking information to news organizations to get the complaint dismissed.

"There does need to be some guardrails," she said.

On Wednesday, Rutherford moved to send the report back to administration for further discussion at the next meeting of the code of conduct subcommittee.

"I think when we have these kinds of bylaws that have a lot of items in them and each item warrants a thorough debate, it's not the place to do that at council," she said.

LISTEN | Changes could have unintended negative consequences, councillor says: