AMHERST – Darrell Jones wants Amherst council to strengthen its code of conduct to regain the public’s trust and conception that it’s dragging its feet on the matter.
The councilor brought forward a motion at council’s March committee-of-the-whole meeting that would change town policy by expecting members of council to uphold the letter and spirit of the code of conduct and discharge their duties in a manner that will support public confidence in the abilities and integrity of council.
At the same time, it would require councillors to refrain from engaging in professional or personal conduct that could discredit or compromise the integrity of council.
“The public doesn't see and feel that council members are up to self-regulating the importance of principles contained in the code of conduct,” Jones told council.
CAO Greg Herrett said council has waiting for the province to move on a code of conduct for municipal governments for several years. He said the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities has sent some proposals to the province and there’s a workshop scheduled next month in Truro.
He suggested the town wait until that session before trying to change its code of conduct. he said provincial legislation would have precedence any town policy on the matter.
“If the province brings in legislation or changes the Municipal Government Act or the Municipal Elections Act it will have precedence. I expect there will be changes to the act that will say councils will be required to have codes of conduct and they must cover these areas and council has this authority to do this to members who are in variance of that code of conduct,” Herrett said. “It’s still ongoing.”
Council does not have the power to remove or suspend a councilor for breaking a code of conduct. What it can do is restrict membership on committees or restrict travel by a councilor who breaks the code.
He suggested that instead of making changes now council should continue to wait for the province.
Coun. Vince Byrne, who was recently reprimanded by the Nova Scotia Securities Commission for trading mutual funds after his licensed expired, disagreed with Jones that the public has lost trust in council.
Byrne was never charged under the criminal code or the Securities Act and cooperated with the securities commission and accepted the reprimand and the penalty that came with it.
“I have difficulty with the comment that we have all seen and heard how the public is losing trust. I haven’t seen that or heard that,” he said. “If you read the opinion pieces on social media that’s what they are, opinion. I haven’t seen any comment or discussion that says we can’t self-regulate. Those comments pay everyone with a very large brush.”
Byrne said people like accountants, doctors and lawyers are members of professional organizations and are responsible to follow their codes of ethics and conduct. If someone makes an accusation, that group is bound to investigate.
“It doesn’t make any sense by beefing it up with those words. It still doesn’t have any teeth and I’m not exactly sure what we’re trying to accomplish,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to amend something that doesn’t need to be amended or will be defunct in a month or so.”
Jones said his motion wasn’t meant to be personal but to show some transparency by council. He said the code covers councillors while on council business, but its members are regarded as councillors in the community away from council business.
He would expect councillors to act within the spirit of the code at all times.
“Members of this council need to think before they say something outside of council because in the public eye you’re still a councilor whether you’re in council or at the Amherst Stadium,” Jones said. “People in this town recognize you as a councilor, as a leader and we’re expected to act as such.”
Jones said the town has been talking about the code of conduct for a couple of years and nothing has been done because it’s waiting for the province. He suggested it needs to act now.
The motion, however, did not pass with only Jones supporting it.
The code of conduct was first called into question in 2016 when former councilor George Baker admitted to using a racial slur at a downtown pizzeria. At the time, then mayor Robert Small said council had no authority to discipline the councilor.
Baker, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2016, was reprimanded and suspended from the town’s police commission.