OPINION: City’s Code of Conduct can’t be allowed to stifle debate

Randy Evans

Sarnia’s new city council is expected to revisit the controversial Code of Conduct approved by the previous council.

The Code prohibits members from making “any negative comment or insinuation” about another councillor on any personal opinion expressed anytime, anywhere and on any subject.

On this issue, history can teach us many lessons about the need to speak freely.

At a Feb. 9, 1883 council meeting Mayor Ebenezer Watson expressed his concern about a possibly improper expense of $200 incurred by the town’s Indigent Committee. Councillors weren’t interested and attempted to shut down debate.

With his dander up and “in a tone of indignation,” the crusty, colourful Mayor Watson said:

“I do not care if I have spoken a dozen times. This council is at liberty to discuss the business that comes up, and I am not going to be put down. You rush things through in a slipshod manner and no one knows what is being asked upon when things are allowed to slop over,” he said.

“Some of you sit here and throw away $200 of the Town’s money, but if it was 2 cents out of your own pocket you would everlastingly squirm.

(Order, Order)

The mayor lost, but he made his point clearly.

In the early 1930s, Sarnians were grappling with a proposed expense of $10,000 to buy Lake Huron land that would become part of Canatara Park. It was a significant sum during the Depression years, when so many were desperately poor and living on government relief.

The Sarnia Taxpayers and Homeowners Association led the opposition to the plan, and it hosted a public meeting at the library attended by Mayor Jim Barr, the proposal’s chief proponent.

It was a lively session that at times “became unruly,“ The Observer reported. And people had plenty to say, including the following:

  • “It is high time that reckless expenditure of money should be stopped.”
  • “[City Council has a] grab bag system of falling for every project that is offered.”
  • “We are fighting right now to pay our taxes … where is all this money coming from?”
  • “Citizens are losing their properties because they cannot pay the taxes. Some are sacrificing their life insurance policies to keep from starving.”
  • “It was not fair to ask the citizens to spend money for a park (when) there was an appeal…to assist needy families during the coming winter.”

The mayor and council were reminded the money they wanted to spend was coming from “a crippled people.”

The taxpayers’ association lost, but only after a full debate.

Merits aside, those who spoke out were correct to express their truth with emotion and without holding back. They were able to exercise their right to free speech without being muzzled by outside constraints.

Taxpayers advance their money trusting it will be used in a responsible manner. When it comes to tax dollars, vigorous debate and close scrutiny should always be the rule of the day.

Randy Evans is a Sarnia resident and regular contributor to The Journal