Council receives behavioral training

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By Pam Wright
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Don’t take chances, be respectful and play it safe.

That’s the message John Mascarin delivered to Chatham-Kent councillors when outlining their duties under Ontario’s Municipal Act.

The Toronto lawyer, a long-time expert in municipal governance, made a presentation to council recently as part of a training session designed to pinpoint what is expected of C-K’s elected officials when serving in office.

“The municipal council is the most important decision-making body at the local level,” Mascarin said, noting council as a whole is looked at as the collective directing mind of the municipality, not of its individual members.

“Council must not seek to wield that power unilaterally or away from the council chambers,” he said.

Citing numerous case-law decisions, Mascarin said that when serving on council “members are under a duty to act in the best interests of the corporation and the citizens they represent.”

He stressed that only council as a whole – not an individual council member – has the authority to direct staff to carry out a particular action.

Mascarin reminded councillors that many of their decisions are “complex and controversial,” with long-term consequences, noting council must consider the future health and welfare of the community.

“You cannot look at your responsibilities as short-term responsibilities,” he stressed.

Mascarin touched on a wide range of topics during his talk, including ethics, conflict of interest, professionalism, confidentially, respect for civil discourse, respect for staff, proper conduct and the correct use of social media.

According to the lawyer, the latter often gets people into trouble.

Calling social media something that is “really wonderful and really awful,” Mascarin said posting on various platforms provides instantaneous contact.

“Please be careful when you’re a member of council of your title,” he advised. “It provides an aura of legitimacy.

“The use of social media tends to get members of council in hot water a lot,” he said. “Always pause before sending any kind of electronic dissemination of your views. Review your message. Really think about it.”

Mascarin also advised council to not communicate electronically during council meetings.

Mascarin also outlined the clear delineation between the roles of councillors and C-K administration and staff, noting council’s role is to govern, while staff are there to carry out operations.

“Staff is there to help you carry out your decisions,” he told council. “But just remember they’re not yes men, or, they shouldn’t be yes men. That’s a problem if they are. You want to have a robust, forceful staff that sometimes say no to you or challenge you.

“Equally you’re entitled to challenge staff,” he said. “You do so in a civil, professional, courteous manner.”

He also told council that when they are appointed to various boards, their duty is to greater good of the organization they’ve been chosen to represent, rather than pushing for the needs of constituents.

If in doubt about a conflict, Mascarin advised councillors “to get ahead of it” by contacting their integrity commissioner.

Mascarin also touched on the recent advent of controversial strong mayor powers bestowed on 44 Ontario mayors by the province, saying he doesn’t believe the powers will fulfill the goal of building more housing.

“I don’t get it,” said Mascarin. “I’ve spoken out very strongly against this.

“The whole logic is that strong mayors will build more homes,” he said. “Does anyone think that will really happen?

I don’t.”

Mascarin commended Chatham-Kent on its recent hiring of Suzanne Craig as its new integrity commissioner.

“Kudos to you on the appointment of Susan Craig,” he said. “You’ve chosen wisely for your integrity commissioner.”

He reminded council the integrity commissioner’s role is to be independent, impartial, neutral and objective, and their decisions cannot be challenged under current legislation.

“The role of council is not to challenge the integrity commissioner’s findings,” he said.

1 COMMENT

  1. Long overdue, but progressive.
    Councillors who attempt to use their privileged status against the Common Good are not only an embarrassment but present real threats to a sustainable future for all citizens and the landscape upon which all life depends.

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