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Councillors on conflict of interest report: ‘Overkill,’ ‘A good start’


St. John’s city councillors say a report on conflict of interest is thorough and provides good guidance on ethics, with one councillor cautioning against going overboard on its recommendations.

“I think it’s somewhat overkill,” said Coun. Art Puddister. “The existing guidelines we have are probably sufficient. I think the report is very well thought-out, very detailed, but I think we need to remember we are a municipal council. One of the things we have to realize is that there’s an issue of common sense for members of council and former councillors and existing employees and former councillors.”

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St. John’s mayor being paid for performing weddings on city property among report’s concerns

 

The report, by former premier Clyde Wells, recommends hiring or contracting someone to oversee a new ethics code, or to assign those duties to a senior staffer, but Puddister warned against spending too much money.

“It’s a well-written report. My concern is I don’t think we need to be killing a fly with a sledgehammer.”

One of the concerns Puddister has is lack of direction on what should happen with campaign donations. The report notes city bylaws limit how much councillors can spend on a campaign, but not how much they can raise. If a candidate raises more money than they can spend, the surplus is theirs to do with as they wish, notes the report.

Coun. Tom Hann, who pushed for the report to be done, said city staff are still examining the report, which runs to 109 pages plus appendices.

The report was completed in late September, and Hann said it was scheduled to be released publicly at the end of February. The city released it later Wednesday after The Telegram reported on a leaked copy it had received.

“It was a very extensive report. We gave it to our legal people, for obvious reasons, to go through and make sure we were headed in the right direction, whether we should enact all of the recommendations or some,” said Hann. “For instance, do we need an ethics officer? That kind of issue.”

There’s a lot to work through in the report, and some recommendations would require changes to legislation, involving the provincial government, Hann said.

But it’s important to be thorough, he said.

“We live in an environment where politicians are not looked at in a good light,” he said. “And I asked that we do a complete review simply because we have to be seen — and this may be a cliche — as open, transparent and honest. And in order to do that, I thought we needed a complete review of the conflict of interest legislation, the elections act and bylaws, and we needed a code of ethics that’s stronger than anything we have right now.”

Coun. Danny Breen joked that it was “very ironic that the code of ethics report was leaked.” Nevertheless, he said the report is “a good start.”

“I believe that we need conflict of interest guidelines and we need a code of ethics, a code of conduct, whatever you want to talk about,” Breen said. “To be quite blunt with you, some of what may be in there may be things you would do naturally anyway, but I think it’s important that we all have an agreement on how we conduct ourselves.”

Some of that work is already being done, said Breen, pointing to stronger whistleblower laws the city is considering.

“But we really need a code of how we behave, how we handle ourselves, and that goes not just for council, but for staff, and something that is there for people to see, and people to expect,” he said. “Not that it’s been a huge issue, but it’s something that as we grow and become a bigger government, that we have these guidelines in place.”

Those guidelines need to address even fundamentals as what constitutes a conflict of interest. Right now, the city only considers a councillor to be in conflict when he or an immediate family member would materially benefit from a decision. That’s too narrow, said Breen.

“Sometimes conflicts go beyond that, and that’s something that we need some direction and some guidance and some structure around,” he said.

Mayor Dennis O’Keefe was not available Wednesday, as he was travelling to Ottawa for a Big City Mayors’ Caucus meeting.

 

dmaceachern@thetelegram.com, Twitter: @DanMacEachern

“I think it’s somewhat overkill,” said Coun. Art Puddister. “The existing guidelines we have are probably sufficient. I think the report is very well thought-out, very detailed, but I think we need to remember we are a municipal council. One of the things we have to realize is that there’s an issue of common sense for members of council and former councillors and existing employees and former councillors.”

Related story:

St. John’s mayor being paid for performing weddings on city property among report’s concerns

 

The report, by former premier Clyde Wells, recommends hiring or contracting someone to oversee a new ethics code, or to assign those duties to a senior staffer, but Puddister warned against spending too much money.

“It’s a well-written report. My concern is I don’t think we need to be killing a fly with a sledgehammer.”

One of the concerns Puddister has is lack of direction on what should happen with campaign donations. The report notes city bylaws limit how much councillors can spend on a campaign, but not how much they can raise. If a candidate raises more money than they can spend, the surplus is theirs to do with as they wish, notes the report.

Coun. Tom Hann, who pushed for the report to be done, said city staff are still examining the report, which runs to 109 pages plus appendices.

The report was completed in late September, and Hann said it was scheduled to be released publicly at the end of February. The city released it later Wednesday after The Telegram reported on a leaked copy it had received.

“It was a very extensive report. We gave it to our legal people, for obvious reasons, to go through and make sure we were headed in the right direction, whether we should enact all of the recommendations or some,” said Hann. “For instance, do we need an ethics officer? That kind of issue.”

There’s a lot to work through in the report, and some recommendations would require changes to legislation, involving the provincial government, Hann said.

But it’s important to be thorough, he said.

“We live in an environment where politicians are not looked at in a good light,” he said. “And I asked that we do a complete review simply because we have to be seen — and this may be a cliche — as open, transparent and honest. And in order to do that, I thought we needed a complete review of the conflict of interest legislation, the elections act and bylaws, and we needed a code of ethics that’s stronger than anything we have right now.”

Coun. Danny Breen joked that it was “very ironic that the code of ethics report was leaked.” Nevertheless, he said the report is “a good start.”

“I believe that we need conflict of interest guidelines and we need a code of ethics, a code of conduct, whatever you want to talk about,” Breen said. “To be quite blunt with you, some of what may be in there may be things you would do naturally anyway, but I think it’s important that we all have an agreement on how we conduct ourselves.”

Some of that work is already being done, said Breen, pointing to stronger whistleblower laws the city is considering.

“But we really need a code of how we behave, how we handle ourselves, and that goes not just for council, but for staff, and something that is there for people to see, and people to expect,” he said. “Not that it’s been a huge issue, but it’s something that as we grow and become a bigger government, that we have these guidelines in place.”

Those guidelines need to address even fundamentals as what constitutes a conflict of interest. Right now, the city only considers a councillor to be in conflict when he or an immediate family member would materially benefit from a decision. That’s too narrow, said Breen.

“Sometimes conflicts go beyond that, and that’s something that we need some direction and some guidance and some structure around,” he said.

Mayor Dennis O’Keefe was not available Wednesday, as he was travelling to Ottawa for a Big City Mayors’ Caucus meeting.

 

dmaceachern@thetelegram.com, Twitter: @DanMacEachern

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