Don”™t create more paperwork with Municipal Act changes, town tells province

Officials here have no problem with the idea of codes of conduct and integrity commissioners for municipalities, as long as they don’t generate more paperwork.

The Ontario government is currently reviewing the Municipal Act and the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, as required every five years.

At the Oct. 20 Minto council meeting, CAO Bill White explained the province is requesting municipalities, organizations, elected officials, experts, and Ontarians indicate how the legislation can be improved under three themes:

  • • accountability and transparency;
  • • municipal financial sustainability; and 
  • • responsive and flexible municipal government.

“It is interesting the province framed its review of these two acts based on (these) issues … Most municipal governments are more accountable, transparent, financially stable, responsive and flexible than any provincial or federal government is ever likely to be,” White stated in his written report.

“At a small, rural municipal level, most residents are well aware of the actions of their council and staff, and can easily access any meeting or member of council … A resident can learn all they want about municipal decision making if they take an interest.”

Mayor George Bridge agreed municipal governments are more open than upper tiers.

“It really slays me that we continue to be told to be transparent, to be open, and all these things … when, both in the federal and provincial government, they do everything in caucus and anybody that says anything outside the caucus meeting gets kicked out of the party. So where’s the transparency?” Bridge said.

“So why, all of a sudden, it has to be so transparent at the local level where we can’t even have a private meeting to discuss maybe a financial matter about buying a property or something and yet the province has all kinds of private meetings?” 

White pointed out town staff recently researched the amount of time council spends meeting in camera.

“Sometimes councils got in the habit of meeting in closed, just because you were meeting and we’ve gotten away from that – not to say that we did before – but this year we’ve only had eight closed sessions and they tend to be about a half-hour long,” said White.

“Certainly about 10 per cent of your business, max, is in closed session and it’s all pertaining to personnel issues and land issues that you have to be in closed session for.”

Statistics supplied by White indicate Minto council held 19 closed meetings in 2013, 12 in 2014 and eight so far in 2015. 

“Typically these meetings are 30 minutes or less. This compares to approximately 24 open sessions of a minimum two hours,” the report adds.

Councillor Ron Elliott said,  “I think we’re also very clear what we’re going in-camera for. Eventually, I’ll say 100 per cent of the time what happened in that closed session will come out to the public.”

The province asks if a council or staff code of conduct enforced by an integrity commissioner will enhance accountability and transparency. 

“If the province required all municipalities to have these in place this would not be a concern to the town,” the report states. 

“What would be an on-going financial issue is if the province puts in place a monitoring infrastructure requiring annual reporting, reviews and updates. This kind of oversight does nothing to improve transparency or accountability and directs resources away from communicating with the public.”

White also suggested the Conflict of Interest Act “would be so much clearer” if the word “pecuniary” was replaced with “financial.”

“Members of council and the public all know what a financial interest is and using plain language in the legislation would be an improvement,” he said.

In regard to financial sustainability, the report states Minto treasurer Gordon Duff, “firmly believes” municipalities will need access to new revenue sources to meet existing core infrastructure demands without “dramatically impacting” property tax.

“Town staff would certainly welcome access to other sources of revenue such as HST or provincial gas tax to help address needs set out in its asset management plan,” White wrote.

On responsive and flexible municipal government, the report notes 2003 and 2006 reforms gave municipalities “natural person powers” and “set the stage” for responsible and flexible local government.

“The problem is writing more legislation to make municipalities become more responsible and flexible will defeat the purpose,” White said in his report. “Municipalities are still adjusting to the many changes in the act. There are also still many complicated processes.” 

Council voted to support the report’s recommendation to advise the province:

  • • Minto has no concerns with mandated codes of conduct for council and staff as well as appointing an integrity commissioner to assist with enforcement, so long as the mandate does not include additional review and monitoring obligations to the province;
  • • the Conflict of Interest Act should be changed to replace the word pecuniary in all cases with the word financial;
  • • the financial sections of the Municipal Act should be amended to allow small rural municipalities access to a share of HST or provincial gas tax to help fund core infrastructure priorities; and
  • • any further changes to the Municipal Act should be minor in nature, designed to reduce reporting and monitoring to the province “so that municipalities have more time to grow innovation and continue to become more flexible in delivering services locally.”