Red Deer city council began the process of revising its Council Conduct Code, after dealing with four complaints since 2020.
The majority on council approved first reading on Monday of upgrades to the code. Coun. Victor Doerksen was the only one to vote against first reading, primarily because of the potential cost of having an “ethics advisor” and/or “integrity commissioner” adjudicating complaints — which was one of the recommended amendments to the code.
Council was told that some other communities have hired, retained or contracted with commissioners/advisors to evaluate conduct complaints against council members.
Up to now, Red Deer City council has paid for an outside consultant, which has cost local taxpayers as much as $107,00o for looking into a complaint. Council adjudicated a more recent complaint on its own since it had already been ruled on by Alberta elections officials.
But Mayor Ken Johnston feels there’s a need for an experienced outsider to make decisions on whether councillors broke the Council Conduct Code. As a mayor, he said he doesn’t feel he has the legal expertise needed to weigh in on these matters.
“We need a referee… somebody to adjudicate the process,” as players can’t be put into the position of enforcing their own rule book, he explained.
Most councillors favoured having only one person acting as a commissioner/advisor, and putting this person on a retainer to use as needed, instead of hiring a full-time salaried employee in the position.
Coun. Kraymer Barnstable suggested an unintended consequence of hiring a salaried ethics commissioner is that the taxpayers who are footing the bill may well feel they should get their money’s worth and pursue a litany of petty complaints.
Coun. Vesna Higham stressed she would absolutely would not support any revisions that would require paying a $200,000 salary to an advisor/commissioner when that type of expertise could be obtained through a retainer that would perhaps add up to $24,000 to $36,000 a year.
It was alternatively suggested that Red Deer could share the cost of an outside adjudicator with other mid-sized cities that could also use this service. Administration was asked to look into various costing options and credentials for an integrity commissioner.
Administrators were also asked to get back to council within four weeks about how to address the anonymity of some complainants. Coun. Dianne Wyntjes and Cindy Jefferies suggested that the names of people making the complaints should become part of the public record, for the sake of transparency and to hold everyone accountable since it’s too easy to make a complaint anonymously.
Allowing your name to stand is a matter of integrity and “putting your money where your mouth is,” said Jefferies.
Several councillors suggested limiting complaint rights to only city residents. They also wanted administration to bring back a clause that would protect a councillor’s right to free opinion, which is enshrined by the Alberta Human Rights Act.
A new Code of Conduct Bylaw was presented to council after the item was introduced in a closed meeting and then moved into the open for discussion and first reading.
A redesigned complaint process would include the addition of timelines to ensure complaints are managed in a timely manner, a no-complaint period 90 days before an election, and an informal resolution option.
The revised code will come back for possible second and third reading in a month.