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Fernie weighs up council code of conduct

A code of conduct is designed to lay out expectations for behaviour by elected officials
City of Fernie city hall. (Scott Tibballs / The Free Press)

The City of Fernie is on a path to adopt a council code of conduct.

In documents submitted to the committee of the whole on July 18, staff sought councillor input on the new code, which is encouraged by the provincial government and local government best practices around the province.

A code of conduct is a meant to set out expectations for conduct and behaviour of councillors in their duties as elected officials.

The draft policy shared with current councillors is derived from policies enacted by local governments in Summerland and Prince George, which the report noted had been “recommended to staff as model policies.”

While the current City of Fernie council has been regularly touted by Mayor Ange Qualizza as respectful and cordial in its conduct during meetings, the staff report encouraged adoption of a set policy “while the need is low.”

“This Council can guide the process based on its own experiences over the past term,” reads the staff report. “The policy that is adopted by this Council will required to be reviewed and considered by the incoming council within the first six months of their term. It will be helpful if the incoming council were to have a policy developed by an experienced council to consider from which to build.”

During discussion, Mayor Qualizza brought up the experience of other municipal governments around the province, saying that some were paralysed by infighting that was damaging to morale and reducing their effectiveness.

“We’ve got to claw back collegial behaviour in city halls around this country,” she said.

The code of conduct as presented to council on July 18 for direction includes “six foundational principles of responsible conduct”, which are integrity, respect, accountability, leadership and collaboration (bunched together as one), creativity and transparency.

The document went on to elaborate on standards of conduct, ranging from (and not limited to): requiring councillors respect the municipal process; refrain from any abusive language towards any fellow councillors, city staff or members of the public; avoid conflict of interest (or perception of conflict of interest); not use public resources for private gain and more. A full list is available in city documents on the City of Fernie website.

Some standards of conduct specifically lay out mechanisms for maintaining the chain of command, with the document encouraging councillors to respect the Chief Administrative Officer’s authority and responsibility over staff, and to not interfere with city staff in their duties. The current structure of local government maintains that the CAO is the point of contact between elected officials and the bureaucracy.

The draft also included points on maintaining a positive working environment, with councillors directed to keep comments about staff performance out of public view. “Comments about City staff performance shall only be made to the Chief Administrative Officer through private correspondence or conversation,” reads the draft document.

The entire code of conduct as presented was noted within itself to be self-enforcing, in that it “becomes most effective when members are thoroughly familiar with it and embrace its provisions.”

“For this reason, this code shall be provided as information to candidates for Council. Members elected to Council shall be requested to sign a member statement affirming they have read and understand this Code, and that they agree to conduct themselves in accordance with it.”

There is no specification that anyone will be forced to sign a code of conduct to serve as a councillor.

Councillors generally approved of the draft recommendations, with Mayor Qualizza asking for some lines and policy to be included from the District of Squamish’s code.

A more final draft of the council code of conduct will come before the council in August. As noted, if a code is adopted, it will be reviwed and possibly changed by any new incoming council following an election by design.

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