OPINION: Integrity commissioner is Sarnia’s new bogeyman

City Hall 4

George Mathewson

If you watched the Feb. 27 city council meeting you may be hard pressed to see exactly where Mayor Mike Bradley “bullied, harassed and intimidated” the city clerk.

Video of the meeting shows Bradley strongly disagreeing with Dianne Gould-Brown’s decision not to include a letter from a citizen in the council agenda package. But the mayor doesn’t raise his voice or appear to act offensively. He even cuts short the debate when it appears to be getting heated.

(Judge for yourself. The recording can be viewed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=NIw3jDeGArQ starting at 1:01:30).

But, of course, the clerk’s complaint was not an isolated incident. So in finding the mayor had breached the city’s code of conduct again, Integrity Commissioner Robert Swayze said the latest complaint was part of a pattern of ongoing and egregious behaviour directed by the mayor at City Hall staff.

What’s more, the commissioner added, Bradley deliberately challenged the decision of the clerk — an employee who can’t defend herself — at a public session, thereby showing disrespect for her professional capacity as an officer of the city.

Council agreed, and in a 5-2 vote on May 29 docked Bradley two week’s salary.

Coun. Cindy Scholten said Bradley supporters who were outraged after watching the meeting video are missing the big picture.

“They are not witnesses to the depth of the ongoing psychological abuse that has been happening inside these walls by our mayor,” she said.

“This is not about being too sensitive. Saying you’re too sensitive is what you would say from the ‘70s when a man beat his wife all night long.”

The irony, of course, is that even as council was using the code of conduct to sanction the mayor — and it’s really the only tool at its disposal — councillors were repeatedly and unwittingly violating it themselves.

Coun. Anne Marie Gillis, for example, while speaking with deep emotion about the recent death of acting city manager Andre Morin, whose funeral picture was on display, suggested the mayor’s behaviour had contributed to his death. “Words kill,” she said, quoting the Pope.

Before that, Coun. Matt Mitro suggested the mayor was lying when he cited health problems as the reason for his missing council meetings. “Lot’s of times I don’t believe that to be the case,” Mitro said.

The code, remember, prohibits councillors from making “any negative comment or insinuation” about another councillor or staff member, on any personal opinion expressed at any time, anywhere, on any subject.

Those are the rules.

Do I think they should be called before the Integrity Commissioner and sanctioned for making “negative comments” about another member of council?

No, of course not. They were speaking honestly and from the heart, and to my mind elected leaders should be given wide latitude to freely express their opinion when conducting city business. That’s how good decisions are made.

Unfortunately, though, this odious code of conduct sets the bar for speech so low that it’s now almost impossible for a member of council to do his or her job without breaching it.

To be clear, I am not defending the mayor’s behaviour. Five highly capable women have now lodged complaints against him alleging harassment and bullying. Three have left the city and two continue to flank him at the head of council chambers, painting a sad portrait of municipal dysfunction.

Bradley is reportedly facing suits launched by one or more of the complainants. A judge will determine his guilt or innocence in a court of law, and voters will have the final say on Oct. 22, 2018, when they decide if they want him to be mayor going forward.

In the meantime, however, our elected representatives better be guarded about saying anything negative — indeed, even “insinuating” something negative — or risk being hauled before the integrity commissioner, Sarnia’s new bogeyman.

The recently amended code, as written, is restrictive, it is insidious, and it is almost certainly unconstitutional.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

Could Sarnia’s code of conduct survive a Charter challenge? Hardly. But until someone comes along with deep pockets and a path to the Supreme Court, we’re stuck with it.