Municipal councillors in Nova Scotia will no longer have to police themselves when it comes to complaints about their code of conduct, once legislative amendments are enacted and new regulations are approved.
The Municipal Government Act does not define code of conduct rules and Richmond County Warden Amanda Mombourquette said that's a problem.
"Unfortunately, we found it woefully lacking in detail and also I think we had some problems with the fact that basically the policy we have in place now requires that council investigate councillors and that didn't really sit well with us," she said. "So we're definitely going to be looking at making some changes."
Richmond councillors sanctioned Coun. Michael Diggdon earlier this year after he was reported for sending inappropriate texts to a constituent during a council meeting.
Mombourquette said the process was not easy to follow because the rules were not spelled out and the process required plenty of legal advice.
Richmond County is considering adopting aspects of the Municipality of the County of Kings policy, she said, because it is independent of council and provides a detailed process.
That would make it easier to investigate a complaint and enforce penalties, Mombourquette said.
"It's something that we're going to be looking to model our code after, until such time as regulations are developed by the province, just honestly to protect council and to protect the municipality itself," she said.
Mayor Peter Muttart said Kings County adopted a detailed 12-page policy in 2015 after years of conflict among council members.
Since then, the council has been peaceful, likely due to personalities but also due to the deterrence of having an enforceable code of conduct, he said.
It requires the municipality to hire an independent investigator, usually a lawyer with experience in municipal issues, and it requires the results to be made public, including the cost of any investigation.
Even with that, under the Municipal Government Act, councils can only issue a warning or remove a councillor from committee work.
An important change
Muttart said the penalties are not large, but having formal rules can deter councillors from bad behaviour.
"If they breach it, then it's going to become a public process and no one wants that," he said.
The province says codes of conduct are not mandatory, but last spring the previous Liberal government approved Bill 50, which says municipalities must adopt a code and it adds details — and teeth — to the act.
It will allow municipalities to go in camera — behind closed doors — to determine if there is a breach, but also requires them to report when there is a breach and any penalties in public.
Mombourquette said that's an important change that needs to be made.
"Breaches of the code of conduct do need to be handled in a public meeting to the extent that they can, but keeping mind that we need to protect the interests of citizens who may be reporting a breach, citizens who may have been involved in the situation, or even the councillor if it turns out to be an unfounded allegation," she said.
Bill 50 also requires municipalities to hire an independent person to investigate alleged breaches.
The provisions were never proclaimed, but the Department of Municipal Affairs said in an email it is working with municipal officials to flesh out regulations on the content of codes of conduct, handling of complaints and potential sanctions.
It said the working group hopes to complete that by the end of the year.
Muttart said the cost of hiring an independent investigator can run into thousands of dollars and with only weak penalties, it might not seem worth pursuing.
"It's extremely expensive, oftentimes out of proportion to the offence," he said.
The government could make codes of conduct more of a deterrent by allowing municipalities to recover some of the cost from councillors found to have breached the rules, he said.
Mombourquette said Richmond County is in the process of asking the Department of Municipal Affairs to consider taking on the role of independent investigator.
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