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Cracked Code: System for disciplining wayward city councillors broken, members say

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Tara Jeffrey & Cathy Dobson

Sarnia is asking the Ontario government to come up with a better way to handle complaints against misbehaving council members.

“The system is broken,” said Coun. Terry Burrell, who believes municipal councils shouldn’t be left to discipline one of their own.

Currently, Sarnia’s Integrity Commissioner determines whether a councillor has contravened the Code of Conduct, but it’s up to council to decide whether to proceed with punishment. Penalties can range from a reprimand to a suspension of pay for up to 90 days.

“By having a municipal council involved in the penalty phase, the process switches from a judicial process to a political process,” Burrell said. “There should be some method in place to discipline council members for various infractions.”

Other councillors agree, and in a 6-0 vote on March 21 decided to ask the province for a better system.

Burrell said some councillors simply won’t discipline one of their own, while others could use sanctions “as a weapon” against opponents.

Coun. Mike Stark cited a recent complaint against Coun. Bill Dennis as an example. Integrity Commissioner Paul Watson found Dennis broke the rules and recommended he be reprimanded for “inappropriate behaviour” at a Sept. 16 meeting, during which Dennis laughed and directed a profanity at Stark.

But councillors voted against taking action.

“We had a member of our council who was declared guilty by the Integrity Commissioner, and by a 6-3 vote this council chose not to discipline that individual; not even to reprimand this individual,” said Stark.

“So clearly the system doesn’t work. You need to come up with a system that obviously is far more responsive to the actual infractions.”

Integrity Commissioner Watson is currently looking into three formal complaints involving Sarnia council members.

Watson is actively investigating a complaint stemming from a Nov. 15 diversity training session. Toronto-based Kojo Institute cancelled agreements to train senior municipal staff and Sarnia Police Service after some unnamed councillors subjected consultant Kike Ojo-Thompson to what it called “undisputed, uncorrected and unabated hostility.”

Watson said he received two more complaints last week. They involve a council member who allegedly engaged in misconduct at a Feb. 7 council meeting, and released confidential information to the media.

The two most recent complaints are at the early review stage, Watson said.







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