But can we disagree?

At its inaugural meeting, members of Council signed a Code of Conduct (see my earlier post on this).  This Code of Conduct was developed by a citizens’ committee during the last term and adopted unanimously by Council.

There is a section within the document that establishes boundaries on Council’s influence on City employees:

“Only Council as a whole has the authority to approve budget, policy, committee processes and other such matters.  Members shall be respectful of the fact that staff work for the City as a body corporate and are charged with making recommendations that reflect their professional expertise and corporate perspective.  Accordingly, no member shall maliciously or falsely injure the professional or ethical reputation, or the prospects or practices of staff, and all members shall show respect for the professional capacities of the staff of the City”.

The City has a rigorous process to attract employees with the right qualifications to do the job they are being hired for.

Does this mean that Council cannot publicly disagree with a staff recommendation to Council?  The answer is an emphatic no.  Any City Hall watcher knows this.  Members of Council have the right to disagree with a staff recommendation.  They have a right to petition their colleagues to turn down a staff recommendation or to make changes to a staff recommendation. This right is fundamental to ensuring the accountability of our local government to taxpayers. 

What our Code of Conduct asks of members of Council is that they disagree on the content of the recommendation not on the integrity or professional competence of staff. 

Professionals can and do disagree over the right course of action.  Respectful professional disagreement more often than not results in better decision making – it requires give and take.  If, as politicians, we insist on making it “my way or the highway” or we get emotionally invested in a certain outcome, democracy will be strikingly frustrating experience because at the end of the day we are just one vote.

About Karen Farbridge

An unwavering change maker seeking a just, democratic and sustainable world.

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2 Comments on “But can we disagree?”

  1. Dave Sills Says:

    Thank you for continuing to discuss this issue.

    The Council Code of Conduct has an interesting – and necessary – tension built within it. Yes, the code states that councillors must be respectful of staff. But that comes near the end of the document, and nothing about staff is mentioned in the ‘key principles’ at the beginning of the document. The first ‘key principle’ listed is that “all members shall serve and be seen to serve their constituents in a conscientious and diligent manner”.

    So, first and foremost, councillors must ensure the accountability of our local government to their constituents. You mention that role above. That requires a clear separation between council and staff, so that councillors do not try to micromanage staff (as you mention in a previous blog post), AND so that councillors can effectively challenge staff when necessary (i.e., relationships aren’t too cozy). This is an essential ‘check and balance’ in our municipal system of government.

    Therefore councillors need to view staff work with a critical eye, but must also respectful. But just how critical can a councillor be before beginning to injure the reputation of staff? Is saying “I don’t believe that” injurious?

    Would you agree that the key phrase in the code on this issue is “…maliciously and falsely injure the professional or ethical reputation of staff”?

    That is, councillors may publicly and respectfully disagree with the work of staff as long as it is not done maliciously or falsely.

    Lastly, I agree with your last paragraph wholeheartedly!

  2. kfarbridge Says:

    Rather than digress into the definition of “maliciously” and “falsely” or opening up any past event, I will simplify my message:

    I believe it is not only possible to “disagree without being disagreeable”, it is also more effective.

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