Saanich Council to weigh in on Code of Conduct updates at the March 2 meeting. (Supplied/Teale Phelps Bondaroff)

Saanich councillor believes code of conduct changes inhibit civic engagement

Coun. Nathalie Chambers believes that code updates will stop her from holding council accountable

Coun. Nathalie Chambers is worried that a proposed update to the Saanich council’s code of conduct could threaten democracy among council and ultimately stifle civic engagement in local government. The updated code of conduct for the was submitted for council endorsement at the Feb. 24 meeting, but due to the length of Monday’s meeting, the update was not addressed.

Chambers has had concerns over the code of conduct since its creation in 2016 and believes that it was also a concern to Saanich residents. Chambers feels like she is a minority on council because she is often most vocal when challenging and questioning the decisions and proposals submitted by her fellow council members.

“I got elected to question the process and to ensure that the public is getting the best deal,” Chambers says.

The proposed policy update is minor, according to Coun. Susan Brice, chair for the Finance and Strategic Priorities Committee. Brice was a part of the Finance Committee in charge of the updated code of conduct.

The two most noteworthy changes to the code are in sect. 6.2 and 6.3 which focus on how councillors will conduct themselves on social media.

Sect. 6.2 of the code outlines that councillors should provide a disclaimer stating that their opinions are their own and not a reflection of council. It also states that when expressing personal opinions on social platforms councillors should add the verbiage, ‘in my opinion’. The update that Chambers seems to be most concerned about is sect. 6.3, where it outlines that councillors are to refrain from generating or recirculating, “negative statements disparaging other members of council.” Chambers is concerned over who will determine which comments are disparaging, and that the changes to the code could suppress her ability to share her opinion with the public.

Brice says that in order for disciplinary action to take place from a disparaging comment, a complaint would have to be submitted for review, and in most cases it would be tried to be dealt with informally. She adds, if a complaint were to be escalated that it would be reviewed by a third party and not a member of council.

Chambers hopes to see a bylaw replace the code because she believes that a bylaw will not bind councillors from informing the public.

“This policy appears to impose unreasonable restraint on whistle blowing. What if the process and procedures leading to a decision were improper?” Chambers says.

Not everyone on council agrees with Chambers sentiment about the code of conduct. Coun. Ned Taylor feels the changes to the code were minimal. “Code of conducts are in place to make sure that we do our job respectfully, responsibly and appropriately. I think the changes in our code of conduct are pretty supportable,” Taylor says.

Brice believes that the purpose of the code is not to stifle the opinions of councillors, and that the adoptions of codes of conduct have become increasing popular in different organizations as well as political organizations, which she suspects to be a result of the accelerated use of social media.

The updated code of conduct is set to be presented to at the Committee of the Whole and Special Council Meeting on Monday, March 2. Brice encourages Chambers and other council members to voice their concerns and suggestions at the Monday meeting.

“There is no need for anyone to be overly concerned that their opinion will be stifled,” Brice says.

sarah.schuchard@saanichnews.com

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